Berkeley Assemblymember Loni Hancock called out the big political guns on Saturday morning, with some of California’s top lawmakers to join her in an Oakland City Hall forum calling for reform of the state’s health care system.
Among the participants in the packed Saturday morning forum in City Hall chambers were State Senate President Don Perata, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez and the heads of the Senate and Assembly committees that will consider several health care legislative proposals that are being advanced this year.
Similar forums are being organized by legislators across the state.
“For the last four years, I have seen piecemeal efforts to address [California’s health care] problems, but none has resulted in significant change,” Hancock said in a prepared statement released before the forum. “However, this year seems promising … I hope 2007 is the year we bring true health care reform to California.”
Speaking to reporters about the various health care reform proposals being floated around, including one of his own, one from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, one from Speaker Nuñez, and at least one from legislative Republicans, Perata said that he expects each legislative house will pass a bill this year, with the matter ending up in conference committee to work out the differences. He also said that he and Nuñez would be working to try to merge their two bills into one before that time.
“I will make sure we have at least one Democratic-backed bill and one Republican bill to consider in the conference committee,” Perata said.
In later remarks to the forum, Nuñez said that he and Perata “will soon come back to present a unified plan.”
Perata added that Schwarzenegger’s proposal was “more a concept than an actual bill,” so it “can’t be put in conference committee.” He said that while “ultimately a single-payer system is the best way to proceed,” he was hoping to get a law passed and signed this year “which will at least provide accessible and affordable health care for adults in working families in the state, as well as for all children. I don’t know how much we will be able to get done. But I want to get something passed this year rather than nothing.”
A panel of local and state leaders agreed that health care is a major legislative goal this year.
Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, who made affordable health care one of the major issues of his election campaign last year, said that while ultimately health care had to be taken care of by Congress, “absent action on a national level, we have to step up to the issue in the state. We join together today in a mighty coalition to bring health care in the nation, the state, the county, and the cities to everyone.”
Assemblymember Sandré Swanson (D-Oakland) called health care “the great human rights issue of our time.” Swanson said that “we should not be selling health care like we do a loaf of bread,” adding that “the ultimate solution is universal coverage for every citizen.”
Speaker Nuñez agreed that “our goal is universal health care. We know that there are difficulties and political realities to be overcome, however. So we are going to have to take this in incremental steps. The driving principle is that health care ought not to be a privilege, but a right.”
Pointedly referring to the stand of some in California that so-called “illegal immigrants” should be barred from some of the state’s social services, Nuñez said that a bottom line for this year’s legislation should be health care for all of the state’s children “regardless of their legal status or their parents’ income.”
Nuñez said that the cost for such expanded health coverage should be borne jointly by employers and the health insurance industry. He said that proposals that call for employers paying 4 percent of a state health care benefit “are far too low.” In addition, Nuñez said that the health insurance industry “is making the most money out of the current system. It’s time for them to step up to the plate. They must reduce the cost of premiums so they can be affordable to working families and small businesses.”
But Nuñez agreed with other speakers that even with the current buzz over expanded health care coverage coming from several points, California citizens need to lower expectations about what is possible to be passed in the short term.
“The political will is here to get something passed, but we don’t have the two-thirds vote necessary to pass a single-payer health care plan,” the speaker said. Noting that this should not discourage citizens from moving forward this year, however, Nuñez added that “before we get to the perfect, I want us to get to the possible.”
The forum included several panels of speakers, including representatives of both the Alameda and Contra Costa public health departments, hospitals, health care workers, and Mayor Dellums’ Health Task Force. Dellums’ office recently released a 15-page report on the Health Task Force’s seven recommendations on reforming health care in Oakland. In addition, Dellums told reporters that the Health Task Force would not be disbanded, but would act as advocates for several of the proposals on its recommendation list.
“The idea was never for them to present a report and for us to say ‘thank you; bye!’” Dellums said. “We envisioned from the beginning that the task force process would continue past the reporting stage.”