Universal health care is the only way to address a burgeoning problem, Santa Monica lawmaker says.
Thursday, December 1, 2005
Millions of Americans lack health insurance. Many more sit one paycheck away from joining the crowds in the ER. Seniors flock to Canada and Mexico for cheaper prescription drugs.
These anecdotes are old news and quickly becoming clichéd as the health care situation becomes worse and worse. The employer-based insurance system is under constant threat of failure. That is why state Sen. Shelia Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, is convinced that “universal health care is right around the corner. Okay, maybe two corners.”
Kuehl has introduced a bill that would provide single-payer health insurance to all California residents. Under Senate Bill 840, patients would be able to receive treatment from any doctor or any specialist, at any hospital.
An elected health insurance commissioner would manage the new system.
Funding would come from existing government programs, including Medicare and Medi-Cal, and from a state health tax, collected from all companies and individuals. A 4 percent health tax would be withheld from an individuals’ paycheck, and employers would contribute another 8 percent. So the tax would be significantly smaller than what most Californians currently pay for insurance.
It would also eliminate all co-pays and insurance premiums, and would provide comprehensive coverage—100 percent of inpatient and outpatient care, primary care, prescriptions, mental health, dental, vision, chiropractic and more.
“Everything that you think of as health care is covered, with the possible exception of elective plastic surgery—and I’m still fighting for [that] myself,” Kuehl jokes.
According to a January 2005 report by the Lewin Group, a nonpartisan healthcare policy research firm, the single-payer plan would save Californians hundreds of billions of dollars—$8 billion in 2006; $343.6 billion between 2006 and 2015.
Savings come from consolidating the thousands of public and private insurance programs, and eliminating sky-high administrative costs.
“Right now, 20 percent to 30 percent of every dollar spent on health care is put into administrative costs,” Kuehl says. “With single-insurer models, it’s only 5 percent.”
The bill was approved by the state Senate earlier this year. It’s now moveing its way through various committees.
“I see support continuing to build,” says Assemblyman John Laird, “But the question is: Does it start to move people to be able to get us a two-thirds vote? It will need Republicans. Or it will need overwhelming support to win a vote of the people.”
Not a single Republican Senator supported the health insurance bill.
When asked about his no vote, Sen. Abel Maldonado replied via e-mail: “Sen. Kuehl is right in her diagnosis; we need to reduce the number of uninsured in California. However, I disagree with her prescription. Californians rejected this idea at the ballot box in 2004 when they voted down Proposition 72.”
He does not mention the fact that Prop. 72 was an employer-based insurance plan; Kuehl’s bill is a single-payer insurance system.
Kuehl concedes it’s unlikely that a Republican governor would sign the bill into law.
“For all I know, the bill will turn out to be an initiative because I’ll never get it through the legislature,” she says.
Prop. 186, a single-payer health care model, failed overwhelmingly in 1994 after opponents—led by insurance companies—spent millions of dollars to campaign against the initiative.
“But the circumstances have changed so much,” Laird says. “Insurance costs have gone up. Linking health care to employment is not working.”
Laird points to last year’s failed Prop. 72—opposed by many Republicans, including Maldonado.
“Businesses opposed Prop. 72, saying it’s too much of a burden to link employment with health care. So what’s the alternative?”
Laird says the answer is universal health care. “This is an issue of business competitiveness for the United States. If it costs $1,500 more to make a car in Detroit than across the river in Canada because we tack on the cost of health care, we’re not competitive. Separate from the altruistic goal of making sure everybody has access to health care, it’s an issue of economic competitiveness.”