Senate Health Committee 4/9/2014

The Senate Health Committee, chaired by Senator Dr. Ed Hernandez, took up four bills of interest to health advocates that Health Access is supporting: SB 1340 (Hernandez) on Health Provider Contracts, SB 1276 (Hernandez) on Health Care Fair Billing Policies, SB 1124 (Hernandez) on Medi-Cal Estate Recovery. Here’s a report from our legislative advocate Sawait Hezchias-Seyoum on the hearing on these bills and others:

SB 947 (Anderson) would prohibit the California Health Benefits Exchange, Covered California, or any of its contractors from disclosing personal information without express permission of the individual providing that information. Given fears that the bill as written would hinder enrollment efforts, Health Access joined others in an oppose unless amended position expressing support of the intent to protect the privacy of consumers who apply for coverage, but opposition to the bill in its current form. Advocates argued the bill does not balance the need to protect consumer identity with the need to ensure Californians who want help accessing health care can get help they need. Senator Anderson expressed commitment to address opposition concerns. This bill passed out of committee with a vote of 8-0.

SB 1340 (Hernandez) would eliminate gag clauses in contracts between all types of health providers and health plans or insurers, thereby ensuring consumers have better access to health care cost and quality information. Transparency of cost and quality is essential to helping to control health care costs while improving health care quality.  This bill passed out of committee with a vote of 8-0.

SB 1124 (Hernandez) which would limit Medi-Cal estate claims recovery to inpatient nursing home care for those over age 55 passed out of committee with a vote of 7-1, with Republican Senator Jim Nielson voting no.  SB 1124 (Hernandez) is an important measure that will ensure California’s estate recovery program does not go beyond what is required in Federal law, and discourage people from enrolling in Medi-Cal due to concerns about estate recovery. The bill would align California with most states with regard to limiting estate recovery from a surviving spouse. Sponsors of the bill, Western Center on Law and Poverty and Health Access expressed to the committee that without the passage of this bill, many will continue to see Medi-Cal, not as safety net system, but as a loan.  WCLP was joined in support by the California Pan Ethnic Health Network, California Teachers Association, AFSCME and SEIU.

SB 1276 (Hernandez) would update existing law, sponsored by Health Access to assure uninsured and underinsured Californians are not overcharged for hospital care, by establishing the definition of a “reasonable payment plan” should a hospital or emergency room physician bill a patient who qualifies for charity or discount care and would ensure that the patient is not charged more than 5 percent of their monthly income. The bill passed out of Committee with a vote of 5-2, with Senator Wolk abstaining and Senator DeLeon, who was out of the room when the vote took place also not voting.  Republican Members, Senator Anderson and Senator Nielsen both voted no.  The California Hospital Association opposed the bill in committee asserting that the bill expands the number of people who would qualify for charity care, but committed to working with the author to resolve concerns and expressed the likelihood of removing opposition.  In response, Beth Capell, on behalf of Health Access, stated that SB 1276 (Hernandez) was mischaracterized as charity care, since there is no obligation to provide free care, only an obligation to provide care at the price of Medicare or Medicaid as is current law.  The Emergency Physicians Association also expressed opposition, asking Senator Hernandez to exempt emergency room physicians on the grounds that they are not hospital employees and should be treated differently.  In response to concerns raised by opposition, republican Senator Joel Anderson asked Senator Hernandez why the state doesn’t just fill the gap in payment. Recognizing that it is not all too often that Republican legislators suggest state funding for safety-net related programs or changes, Senator Hernandez pointing out that requiring the state to pick up the cost would result in general fund impact, but that he would explore state funding if he could count on Senator Anderson’s support with the bill (presumably with revenues.)

The biggest presentation of the meeting was a debate over labeling sugar-sweetened beverage, over a bill authored by Senator Bill Monning, which passed.