HEALTH ACCESS UPDATE

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2003

CONFERENCE COMMITTEE CONVENES TO CONSIDER SB 2,

TO COVER OVER A MILLION UNINSURED WORKING CALIFORNIANS

A conference committee met today to consider SB 2 (Burton), a bill that would expand health coverage to over a million uninsured working Californians. The bill would require employers of 20 or more workers to pay a fee into a state purchasing pool to cover workers. The fee would be waived for those employers that provide at least basic coverage to their workers–and, for employers with 200 or more workers, their families as well. This would extend coverage to half of all uninsured workers.

The committee started with testimony from labor, medical providers, and employers. Tomorrow, Thursday, September 4th, the committee will hear testimony from representatives of consumers, insurers, safety-net providers, and other advocates. It is likely that a bill may be voted out by Friday, or probably the latest Monday. After passage, it would go to the Senate and Assembly for an up-or-down vote.

ACTION: Advocates for the uninsured are urged to contact members of the conference committee, including Senators John Burton, Jackie Speier, Sam Aanestad, and Assemblymembers Dario Frommer, Rebecca Cohn, and Robert Pacheco. Advocates are requested to:

* state their support for the current version of SB 2,

* thank the legislators for their leadership,

* urge passage of a comprehensive bill out of committee that covers as many as possible,

* and, stress the urgency of addressing the crisis of the uninsured this year.

ACTION: The challenge of getting SB 2 passed is to get this through the Senate and Assembly by next Friday, September 12th. Advocates for the uninsured are urged to contact their Assemblymember ASAP in support of SB 2. Please contact Health Access for bill summaries, fact sheets, and other information.

COMMITTEE TESTIMONY WRAP-UP: The committee started with opening remarks by committee members. Burton stressed the commitment to cover the uninsured. Frommer called this a “historic opportunity,” and stressed the opportunities to control costs and remedy unfair cost shifts.

SPONSORS: Art Pulaski of the California Labor Federation and Steve Thompson of the California Medical Association spoke first as representatives of the sponsors of the bill. Pulaski talked about the health care crisis in general, reminding that the greatest cause of personal bankruptcy in medical problems and medical bills. In deference to concerns about not wanting to burden small business, Pulaski reminded the committee of the “extraordinary compromise” in exempting small business with less than 20 employees, which make up 87.5% of businesses in California. Thompson gave a bit of history of the “vexing problem” of health coverage, and urged the committee to seize “a chance to do something important.”

LABOR: Representatives from labor testified on the economic benefits of SB 2. SEIU compared SB 2 to a minimum wage for health benefits, a floor that workers could bargain up from, and that employers could go beyond as they do now to attract workers. UFCW complained that employers that provided health coverage were unfairly penalized with competition by employers that don’t provide health care to their workers. CFT, representing many teachers who are mostly covered, simply made the point that they would prefer to teach children in healthier, insured families.

MEDICAL PROVIDERS: Groups representing medical providers gave more detailed testimony about specifics in the bill. While the California Healthcare Association, representing hospitals, “enthusiastically support” the bill, they called it “a work in progress” that will need revisiting in the years of implementation. The association representing emergency room doctors talked about the “embarassing” fact that California was losing doctors to Texas, much due to financial issues related the California’s high uninsured rate.

EMPLOYERS: The debate heated up with the testimony of representatives of employers. While some, including Genentech, spoke in support of SB 2, most were opposed. The Chamber of Commerce predictably called the bill a “job killer.” Assemblyman Frommer and Senator Speier asked repeatedly if their was some way to soften the impact of the bill on employers, but the Chamber stated their unequivocal opposition to all mandates. Frommer responded “either you want to help, or you want to be combative.”

Senator Burton had an explosive colliquy with the panel, asking the panel of employer representatives, “Anybody there not get health coverage through your employer?… Anybody dare to not have coverage yourselves?” He suggested that given that most of the Chamber’s members are exempt, as well as that most already provide health coverage to their workers, that the Chamber may “have its head in the wrong place and should try to be part of the solution.”

One business representative was concerned that “sooner or later” there would be a push to “reduce the threshold” of what businesses are included. The National Federation of Independent Businesses agreed, adding that “100% of our members would love to offer health coverage,” but it “has become “unaffordable.” Finally, representatives from Wal-Mart defended their company, concerned that they had become the “poster child” for this bill, stating that they do provide health coverage to a majority of their workers.

WHAT’S NEXT: The committee ended their hearing after three hours, around 6:45pm, and stated that they would reconvene tomorrow, Thursday, September 4th at the call of the chair, probably around 1:00pm. They would start with testifiers who had signed up today, including the remainder of representatives of employers, then consumer groups, before going onto insurers, safety-net providers, and other advocates.



Anthony E. Wright

Executive Director

Health Access

1127 11th St., #234, Sacramento, CA 95814

Ph: 916-442-2308, Fx: 916-497-0921

awright@health-access.org

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

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