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Michael Hiltzik: California confronts the complexities of creating a single-payer health care system

Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon may have expected to torpedo the idea of a statewide single-payer health care system for the long term last June, when he blocked a Senate bill on the issue from even receiving a hearing in his house.

He was wrong, of course. His shelving of the Senate bill created a political uproar (including the threat of a recall effort), forcing him to create a special committee to examine the possibility of achieving universal health coverage in the state. On Monday and Wednesday, the Select Committee on Health Care Delivery Systems and Universal Coverage held its final hearings.

The panel ended up where it started, with the recognition that the project is hellishly complex and politically daunting but still worthwhile -- yet can't happen overnight. "I'm anxious to see what it is that we can actually be working on this year," committee Co-Chair Jim Wood (D-Healdsburg) said toward the end of Wednesday's seven-hour session. "Some of the logistics and the challenges we have to deal with are multiyear challenges."

Little has changed since last year, when a measure sponsored by the California Nurses Assn., SB 562, passed the Senate in June and was killed by Rendon (D-Paramount) in the Assembly. The same bill, aimed at universal coverage for all residents of the state, including undocumented immigrants, is the subject of the select committee's hearings and the template for statewide reform.

Backers of the Healthy California program envisioned by the bill feel as if they're in a race with federal officials intent on dismantling healthcare reforms attained with the Affordable Care Act, and even those dating from the 1960s with enactment of Medicare and Medicaid.

In just the last few weeks, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has approved adding a work requirement to Medicaid in Kentucky and begun considering a plan to place lifetime limits on Medicaid benefits -- profound changes in a program traditionally aimed at bringing healthcare to needy families.

 

The Republican-controlled Congress effectively repealed the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act. That is likely to drive up premiums for unsubsidized middle-income insurance buyers and has prompted California and other states to consider implementing such a mandate on their own. (Idaho is moving distinctly in the opposite direction from California, proposing to allow "state-based health plans" that allow insurers to discriminate against applicants with pre-existing conditions.

Healthy California would be the most far-reaching single-state project for universal health coverage in the nation. That's to be expected, since the state's nation-leading population (39 million) and gross domestic product ($2.6 trillion) provide the impetus to solve big social and economic issues on its own.

The program would take over responsibility for almost all medical spending in the state, including federal programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, employer-sponsored health plans, and Affordable Care Act plans. It would relieve employers, their workers and buyers in the individual market of premiums, deductibles and co-pays, paying the costs out of a state fund.

All California residents would be eligible to obtain treatment from any licensed doctor in the state. Dental and vision care and prescription drugs would be included. Insurance companies would be barred from replicating any services offered by the program.

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