HEALTH ACCESS ALERT
Tuesday, May 31st, 2005

LEGISLATIVE ACTION REPORT

  • Bills on Medical Debt, Prescription Drugs, Children’s Coverage Up Later This Week
  • SB840(Kuehl) Universal Health Care Bill Passes Senate

Health advocates in Sacramento are busy this week, as this Friday in the deadline for bills to pass their house of origin. For a list of active bills that Health Access, the statewide health care consumer advocacy coalition, is supporting, visit the newly-updated legislative resource at:
http://www.health-access.org/advocating/2005_bills.htm

MEDICAL DEBT: The Assembly is expected to take up two bills to prevent medical debt on Wednesday, June 1st, when they will vote on AB774 (Chan), to prevent hospital overcharging and provide other consumer protections for self-pay patients, and AB977 (Nava), to place public oversight over high deductible plans and other out-of-pocket costs that force patients into debt and lead them not to get needed care.

ACTION: Health advocates should CALL their Assemblymembers on WEDNESDAY to urge them to vote for these two bills to prevent medical debt. Last minute calls and letters to legislators should also be made on the issues below:

PRESCRIPTION DRUGS: On Thursday, the Assembly is expected to consider the full range of bill addressing the cost and safety of prescription drugs, including AB71 (Chan), AB72 (Frommer), AB73 (Frommer), AB74 (Gordon), AB75 (Frommer), AB76 (Frommer), and AB78 (Pavley). A few prescription drug bills, including AB 8 (Chu), SB380 (Alquist), and SB401 (Ortiz) have already passed the first house.

COVERAGE: SB840 (Kuehl), to establish a universal health care system, passed out of the Senate earlier today (see below). Later this week, both AB772 (Chan) and SB437 (Escutia), to expand coverage to all California children, are expected to be voted on by the Assembly and Senate, respectively. Other bills to expand coverage include AB1698 (Nunez), to extend dependent coverage to a higher age level.

Bills that do not pass out of the first house this week will die, with only a small chance of resurrection at the beginning of next year. Of those bills both supported and opposed by health advocates, here is a newly-updated list of bills that have already stalled in either policy or appropriations committees:
http://www.health-access.org/advocating/stalled2005_bills.htm

SB840 (KUEHL) PASSES SENATE ON PARTY-LINE VOTE

Today the California Senate passed SB840 by Senator Sheila Kuehl, the California Health Insurance Reliability Act (CHIRA) on a 24-14 vote. The vote was a party-line vote, with all Democrats present voting for the measure, and all Republicans present voting against it. (Two Senators, one from each party, were not on the floor at the time of the vote, but all indications were that they would have followed their colleagues.)

“It’s often the case that the most efficient solution to a problem is also the most compassionate solution,” presented Senator Kuehl in a statement. “And we must find a solution to our ballooning healthcare crisis. One in 5 Californians is uninsured. Those of us who have coverage are seeing everything rise: premiums, deductibles, co-pays and out of pocket expenses, while our coverage continues to decline. Half of the personal bankruptcies in this country are the result of medical expenses, and the majority of the people bankrupted for that reason had insurance at the time they became sick or injured.”

Health Access legislative advocate Beth Capell reports that there was a long and reasonable debate on the measure. She reconstructs the flavor of the discussion here from memory and notes below:

Opponents included Senator Dave Cox (R-Fair Oaks), who said that SB840 would lead to rationing. He knows that people from other countries come here to get care, such as MRIs and other advanced technology, that they cannot get in their own country. He asked, why is this such a problem if 80% of Californians have health insurance? Senator George Runner (R-Lancaster) asked why we were moving this bill forward if it was not fully worked out. He said he was sympathetic to the problem of the uninsured, but did not regard SB840 as the solution.

Supporters included Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), who said that he had spent more time thinking about this bill than any other bill, other than his own, this year. He had been carrying around a binder on the bill for weeks. Simitian said that he was not sure that this was the perfect bill and he still had lots of questions about it–and he did not promise to vote for it if and when it returns from the Assembly. But he said he was voting for it today because it was an important discussion to move forward.

Senator Wes Chesbro (D-Arcata) said he was proud to be a co-author. He noted that a prominent businessman in his district had recently broken his leg while traveling in Europe and came back raving about the great care he had gotten and was now a supporter of SB840. Senator Elaine Alquist (D-Santa Clara) said that there are only four things a society must do, and “assure health care for all our citizens” should be alongside other responsibilities like “educate our children” and “provide a safe environment.” She spoke of someone she knew who had died of breast cancer, uninsured and unable to get care. Senator Richard Alarcon (D-San Fernando) gave a fiery statement about the need for children and seniors and all of us to have health care and how every other industrialized country has health insurance.

Senator Jack Scott (D-Pasadena) critiqued the current system, stating that last week he looked up the statistics on infant mortality, longevity and health care spending and the United States does not stack up very well: our infant mortality is high, only Denmark has shorter longevity (apparently they smoke a lot, he said), and we spend 15% of GNP on health care while almost every other country is in single digits. Responding to the opponents argument, he indicated that while 80% of Californians have insurance, this was not a very good system for the one in five that did not have health care. Maybe it was good for rich people like those Europeans who came here to get care, but for most of the rest of us, it was not a very good system, he continued.

While SB840 only needed 21 to pass, it got votes from all 24 Democratic Senators present. It now goes on to the Assembly policy committees. A companion bill is expected to be introduced later this year that would include the financing for the universal health care system envisioned in SB840.

Health Access California promotes quality, affordable health care for all Californians.

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