Single-payer universal health care advocates in California begin their second try in two years to make their cause state law when the state Senate Health Committee holds a hearing in Sacramento this Wednesday afternoon on state Sen. Shirley Kuehl’s (D-Santa Monica) SB 840.
Kuehl is chair of the Senate Health Committee.
Calling it the “gold standard for health care reform,” Kuehl said at a February press conference announcing the reintroduction of her bill that “SB 840 genuinely empowers consumers, because it allows each of us uninterrupted access to the doctors we trust. We will be free to move on from our jobs, start a business, start a family continue our education and change our residence, knowing that our health care will follow us. SB 840 offers genuine affordability, because our premiums will be based on income and each of us will pay our share, as would employers. SB 840 offers a genuinely competitive medical marketplace because all healthcare providers will be in competition for patients based not on a race to the bottom but on the quality and efficiency of their service.”
Kuehl’s bill easily passed both houses of the state legislature last year (25-15 in the Senate, 45-33 in the Assembly) but was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said that the measure would create a “vast new bureaucracy” and would “cost the state billions and lead to significant new taxes on individuals and businesses, without solving the critical issue of affordability. I won’t jeopardize the economy of our state for such a purpose.”
But health care coverage has becoming an increasingly visible issue in California and state politics since then, and with the governor himself now calling for at least a limited expansion of health care coverage in California, and both Republican and Democratic legislative leaders coming out with health care bills of their own, advocates are hoping for a better result this year.
The California Alliance for Retired Americans (CARA), the state affiliate for the AFL-CIO retired workers’ organization, is taking several busloads of advocates from the Bay Area to Wednesday’s hearing, including representatives of Oakland-based Vote Health Organization and San Francisco-based Senior Action Network. In addition, the national organization Health Care Access has set up a 365-city campaign in the state under the name OneCareNow (www.onecarenow. org) to promote passage and signing of SB 840.
Oakland’s Vote Health organization, East Bay advocates for increased health care protections, says in its latest newsletter that momentum for SB 840 is building.
“Last August’s rally to demand that Schwarzenegger sign SB 840 only attracted a modest crowd,” the newsletter reported. “When Senator Kuehl held her press conference in February to introduce her bill, busloads of supporters packed the State Capitol hearing room.”
Citing concerns about the health care crisis voiced by such corporations as IBM, Costco, General Electrics, and Kelly Services, the organization said that “the clearly increasing sense of urgency among business leaders to find a genuine solution to our health care crisis can’t help but contribute to our momentum.”
Kuehl’s bill would provide health care coverage for all Californians through a single, state-developed health care system, the so-called “single payer” system.
According to the 88 page bill’s language, SB 840 “would establish the California Universal Healthcare System to be administered by the newly created California Universal Healthcare Agency under the control of a Universal Healthcare Commissioner appointed by the Governor and subject to confirmation by the Senate.
The bill would make all California residents eligible for specified health care benefits under the California Universal Healthcare System, which would, on a single-payer basis, negotiate for or set fees for health care services provided through the system and pay claims for those services.
The bill would require the commissioner to seek all necessary waivers, exemptions, agreements, or legislation to allow various existing federal, state, and local health care payments to be paid to the California Universal Healthcare System, which would then assume responsibility for all benefits and services previously paid for with those funds.”
Last year, Kuehl’s bill did not include a mechanism for how this universal health care would be funded, with the Senator only calling for a commission to determine the financing once the bill became law.
This year, Kuehl has introduced tax increase legislation (SB 1014) that would fund universal health care. While the original bill, SB 840, only requires a majority vote in both houses of the legislature for passage, the tax revenue SB 1014 bill requires a two-thirds vote for passage. That means it will need support from at least some legislative Republicans, who account for more than one-third of the legislature.
State Senate President Pro Tempore Don Perata (D-Oakland) and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles) have introduced separate health care coverage expansion bills themselves, Perata under the California Health Care Coverage and Cost Control Act (SB 48) and Nuñez under the Fair Share Health Care Act (AB 8).
Neither bill calls for universal health care coverage in California. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans have introduced their own bills to expand health care coverage. Last January, Senate Republicans introduced a bill under the name Cal CARE that would, not surprisingly, take a market-based approach, among other things “creat[ing] more consumer options and cultivate marketplace competition by eliminating regulatory hurdles,” “provid[ing] new incentives for hospitals and private industry to increase the number of clinics,” and “increas[ing] the number of Californians with health coverage by offering incentives to employers who offer health care coverage for their employees.”
Assembly Republicans have introduced 19 separate bills addressing the health care crisis.
Perata said at a health care town hall meeting in Oakland last month that he and Nuñez would be meeting during the legislative year to work out the differences between their two bills.
“I will make sure we have at least one Democratic-backed bill and one Republican bill to consider in the conference committee,” Perata said.
The State Senate president added that while “ultimately a single-payer system is the best way to proceed,” he was hoping to get a law passed and signed this year “which will at least provide accessible and affordable health care for adults in working families in the state, as well as for all children. I don’t know how much we will be able to get done. But I want to get something passed this year rather than nothing.”
Nuñez agreed at last month’s Oakland forum that while “our goal is universal health care, we don’t have the two-thirds vote necessary to pass a single-payer health care plan. Before we get to the perfect, I want us to get to the possible.”