Rally calls for new health care Rx for California

SAN FRANCISCO — Top elected officials including Mayor Gavin Newsom urged far-reaching health care reforms, as patients and families shared horror stories about their care June 28 on the steps of City Hall. The rally was the next-to-last stop on the “It’s OUR Healthcare Road to Reform” tour of the state organized by a coalition of labor, health, community and seniors organizations. Earlier stops included San Diego, Los Angeles, Bakersfield, Fresno and Sacramento.

A crowd of over 200 supporters, including many wearing union T-shirts, heard California Labor Federation head Art Pulaski point out that half the families declaring bankruptcy in California do so because of health care costs, and many retirees must cut down on needed medications or do without food and other necessities. “But the money is going not to physicians and nurses,” he said, “but to insurance and pharmaceutical companies.”

Pulaski called for “a new health care prescription for California,” including stopping the ripoff of consumers by insurers and drug companies, and providing “affordable, universal” care for all California residents.

Meanwhile, the state Legislature’s health care debate increasingly focuses on a measure saying all employers must provide their workers with health coverage, and increasing coverage for children and subsidies for poor adults. Private insurance would continue its traditional role.

AB 8 melds a bill introduced earlier by Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) which passed the Senate, and a bill by Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles), which passed the Assembly.

Many advocates of health care reform see AB 8 as a first-step measure that could be enacted this year, and that could mark a real advance if it is further improved.

Anthony Wright, who heads the Health Access coalition of over 200 organizations, called the bill “a new, affordable option for employers” that gives workers new guarantees that premiums will be affordable and expands coverage of the uninsured. Wright called for more controls on out-of-pocket costs to consumers and on health care costs overall.

In a letter to the governor and the two top legislators, state labor leaders expressed similar concerns and called for fair cost-sharing among employers, government and consumers.

At the same time, many reform proponents, including Health Access, continue to back Sen. Sheila Kuehl’s single-payer SB 840, passed by the Legislature last year but vetoed by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The bill is expected to pass again this year but Schwarzenegger has vowed to repeat his veto.

The governor also has a proposal on the table, but it has no legislative sponsor. Republican legislators have so far refused to support even its far weaker provisions.

Under AB 8, all employers would pay at least 7.5 percent of payroll for their workers’ health coverage, either for private coverage or through a state-run pool. Public programs would expand to cover all children, and more low-income parents could get coverage through the state-run pool. Insurers couldn’t reject people across-the-board for “pre-existing conditions,” while those with specific medical conditions would be covered through a “high-risk” pool. It is estimated that about 70 percent of the state’s uninsured would be covered under AB 8.

The Senate Health Committee, chaired by Kuehl, is slated to consider the bill on July 11. Later this month, Perata and Nuñez are expected to meet with the governor on issues where AB 8 differs from the governor’s proposal.

mbechtel @pww.org