Wednesday morning, without taking testimony, the Senate Budget Subcommittee chaired by Senator Elaine Alquist, with Senator Alex Padilla concurring, voted to eliminate funding for the drug discount program.
At noon time, I came back to the office and looked at the blog post by my colleague, Hanh Quach, with that wonderful picture of Governor Schwarzenegger signing the bill, framed on either side by supporters including Anthony Wright, Health Access executive director, and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, who stepped down from that position a week ago yesterday.
I found it hard to believe that only a week after Nunez had stepped down as Speaker, the Assembly would just agree with the Senate and eliminate funding for the drug discount program that every article on his tenure as Speaker cited as one of his major accomplishments.
At 1:30pm, I found out I was wrong. The Assembly Budget Subcommittee convened and we discovered that they too planned to eliminate funding, in the technical language of the legislature, “conforming” to the Senate action. Things can move quickly around the Capitol.
I noticed that somehow the drug companies had found out that they were about to win a delay in this program that they had fought so hard to stop—I saw several of their lobbyists in the back of the hearing room.
Fortunately, the Assembly Budget Subcommittee allowed public testimony. Bill Powers, advocate for California Alliance of Retired Americans (CARA), and I spoke. I pointed out that Health Access had sponsored a ballot measure that Pharma spent $80 million to defeat and that the law was a compromise based on the Legislative Analyst Office (LAO). Consumers and labor supported the law, Pharma bitterly opposed. I said we strongly opposed not funding the program.
Bill Powers spoke about the travesty of the Medicare drug program where Medicare cannot negotiate prices with the drug companies. He pointed out that the State of California negotiates with drug companies for both Medi-Cal and for this new program for the uninsured. Medi-Cal gets very good prices from the drug companies—that is why they opposed this new discount program. If we don’t get the new program, Bill said, we will never know for sure how much we can benefit the uninsured.
And rare in what all too often feels pre-scripted, Assemblymember Patty Berg, the Budget Sub chair, moved to hold the item open, postponing action to another day. The Democrats present, Assemblymembers Jim Beall and Ed Hernandez, concurred. I was so relieved I forgot to notice what the Republicans did.
So we still have a chance to win. But it is a slim one. At any time, the Assembly could agree with the Senate and consumers will be out of luck on drug discounts and the drug companies will have won through the backdoor because of the bad budget year. It seems a poor tribute to the work Speaker Emeritus Nunez has done on health care.