By Nick Diamantides, Staff Writer
The California State Assembly, backed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, passed a landmark healthcare reform bill last week. How the bill will fare in an upcoming State Senate vote is not certain, but initial surveys show many residents of the state favor the legislation.
“California has taken a giant step forward today on something that many people thought could not be done,” said Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger at a press conference shortly after the 45 -31 vote. “With the Assembly’s courageous vote just a short time ago, we are closer than ever to fixing our broken healthcare system.”
The Health Care Security and Cost Reduction Act, also known as Assembly Bill X1-1, would require all Californians to have health insurance by 2010 and would make it illegal for insurance companies to deny medical insurance to anyone because of their age or medical history.
It would also mandate that employers provide insurance to workers or pay into a state purchasing pool. If ABX1-1 ultimately passes, government sponsored healthcare programs would also be expanded to include more of the working poor.
Most of the funding for the healthcare program would come from an estimated $9 billion tax and fee measure that would go to the voters next November. If approved, that measure could raise cigarette taxes by as much as $2 per pack.
Assembly Democrats, led by Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, decided to put the bill’s financing mechanism up to the voters. Otherwise the bill would have required a two-thirds vote in the Assembly—not a likely scenario given the fact that most Republicans voted against the legislation.
Recent surveys, however, show that nearly two-thirds of California voters support the bill, in spite of the state budget’s expected $14 billion deficit. Proponents of the legislation say it will extend coverage to all 6.8 million Californians who now lack health insurance. The bill’s supporters include many liberals as well as conservatives in every region, age group and income bracket. Most voters surveyed said they supported it because too many Californians are now going without adequate medical care.
Meanwhile, several business groups including Blue Cross of California (the state’s largest insurer), tobacco companies, and drug companies are preparing to launch a campaign against the legislation. Given that those companies hold considerable financial clout, and that the $14 billion deficit will necessitate cutbacks in other programs and/or increases in other taxes and fees, voter support of ABX1-1 could erode by November.
Already, Schwarzenegger’s support of the bill has angered Republican legislators. “Our governor, a governor who promised not to raise taxes, is in fact working with the majority Democrats in this body to push through the largest business tax increase in the history of California,” said Assemblyman Chuck DeVore (R-Irvine).
Nunez, who had worked with the governor to hammer out a compromise version of the bill, had a different perspective. “There is no one with more courage and tenacity than Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger,” Nunez said. “He has been so focused on this.” Nunez praised Schwarzenegger for being “a Republican governor in a Democratic state responding to the people of California.”
The State Senate will probably be voting on the bill sometime in the next few weeks. Schwarzenegger said he was confident the Senate would pass the bill. “It is time for the people to stop living in fear of losing their medical coverage, and to live in fear that they are one long hospital stay away from having to file personal bankruptcy,” he said.