PATIENT CARE

Calif. Lawmakers Unveil Universal Coverage Bill

March 30, 2017

By Tracy Seipel and Katy Murphy

March 30--SACRAMENTO -- Following last week's failed effort by House Republicans to replace the Affordable Care Act, and wary of future GOP attempts to chisel away at the 2010 healthcare law, two state lawmakers on Thursday released details about legislation to create universal health coverage for every California resident.

Similar to a single-payer system like Medicare, the federal health insurance program for people 65 and older, Senate Bill 562 -- authored by Sens. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, and Toni G. Atkins, D-San Diego -- would offer one plan that covers all Californians with comprehensive care for all services.

Unlike federally funded healthcare programs, this one would cover undocumented residents.

"We have the chance to make universal healthcare a reality now," Lara said in a statement about his bill, the Healthy California Act. "It's time to talk about how we get to healthcare for all that covers more and costs less."

The ambitious California proposal is similar in its goal to a single-payer health care system that Democrats like Vermont U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders have championed. But it isn't realistic to many policy makers -- including Gov. Jerry Brown, who would have to sign it into law. The governor, who rarely weighs in on pending legislation, last week expressed deep skepticism of the idea.

"Where do you get the extra money?" Brown asked during a conversation with reporters last week during his visit to Washington D.C., just before the GOP health care plan fell apart. "This is the whole question. I don't even get ... how do you do that?"

Thursday's details don't answer the governor's questions, and the bill's authors say they are still developing a detailed funding proposal. But Lara and Atkins point to President Donald Trump's promised "flexibility" to states seeking healthcare waivers, which could allow California to use all federal funds from Medi-Cal, the Children's Health Insurance Program, Medicare, and the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, to help pay for the new program.

Key provisions in the bill, which is is sponsored by the California Nurses Association and a coalition of Californians and health care providers, include:

  • Coverage for all medical care, including inpatient, outpatient, emergency care, dental, vision, mental health, and nursing home care.
  • No co-pays and insurance deductibles.
  • Ability to choose your own doctor from a full list of health care providers, not a narrow network chosen by insurance companies.
  • Premium assistance for Medicare Part D for eligible members.

Atkins cited uncertainty over national health care policy as an impetus to act quickly. "The Affordable Care Act is still intact, and that is a good thing," she said in a statement, "but uncertainty remains, and we can't afford to remain idle on healthcare."

But in his remarks last week, Brown said he failed to see the logic in such an approach. "This is called 'the unknown by means of the more unknown,'" he said. "In other words, you take a problem, and say 'I am going to solve it by something that's ... a bigger problem,' which makes no sense."

One longtime critic of single-payer plans on Thursday called the Senate proposal "a budget buster."

"This is a 'Utopian Socialist Plan' that will be very costly for the state budget and result in major tax increases for Californians, if passed and signed into law," said Sally Pipes, president and CEO of the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute, a nonprofit that promotes limited government.

Pipes is originally from Canada, whose publicly funded health care system is viewed by some Americans as a model for the United States. But Pipes said the system has resulted in "rationed care" and growing wait lists to see a doctor.

The Legislative Analyst's Office has yet to create a cost estimate for the plan, as it contained few details until Thursday.

Lara and Atkins said the Healthy California would be governed by a nine-member, unpaid board appointed by the governor and Legislature and a public advisory committee of doctors, nurses, other health care providers, and consumers.

The board also would develop proposals related to long-term care, retiree healthcare and healthcare services covered under worker's compensation, said the senators.

The full California bill is available at OnePlanMyChoice.com.

The Sacramento Bee also contributed to this report.

(c)2017 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)