Few pieces of major legislation in recent years have been subjected to the scrutiny Assembly Bill X1-1 received last week. ABX1-1, the compromise health care reform bill proposed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Speaker Fabian Nunez, was the topic of an 11 hour hearing by the Senate Health Committee on January 23rd and a thorough analysis of its finances by the Legislative Analyst’s Office. Indeed, it was the LAO report that opponents on the committee cited most in justifying their position.
Now other health care reform proposals are about to go under the same microscope. Speaker Nunez has promised nothing less. And first in line is likely to be the single-payer legislation, Senate Bill 840, championed by Senate Health Committee Chair Sheila Kuehl.
Supporters of ABX1-1 held a press conference on Tuesday to affirm their commitment to enacting comprehensive health care reform for California. During his turn at the microphone, Speaker Nunez referred to ABX1-1 as a “road map to getting the right type of health care that we need, to be a bridge between those who want government run health to those who want the private market to dictate the pace of how health care is delivered.” He pledged to continue to pursue this type of reform.
At the same time, he made clear his intent to hold proponents of competing systems — and specifically single-payer proposals — to the high degree of scrutiny to which ABX1-1 was subjected. It’s worth noting that among ABX1-1’s most vehement opponents was the California Nurses Association. They insist the only health care reform worth enacting is one that eliminates the health insurance industry and turns health care over to the government.
“I think it’s time … to have an honest conversation about single payer,” the Speaker said. “We cannot create the false sense of hope that we can do something better if it hasn’t been tested, vetted and put through the same type of scrutiny that our effort has been put through. And I intend to put each and every proposal that seeks to cover health care for everybody through that same process, because I think it’s only fair. And because I also believe that we need to be comparing any proposal not to some wishful thinking of what we might be able to do two decades from now, but to the world we live in today.”
In the past Speaker Nunez has supported SB 840. In introducing his own reform package early last year, Assembly Bill 8, he commented that while he preferred a single-payer solution he accepted Governor Schwarzenegger’s promise to veto it. Yet now he seems intent on demonstrating that SB 840 presents an even greater financial risk for the state than did ABX1-1. And that shouldn’t be hard to do.
Sacramento Bee columnist Daniel Weintraub recently commented on similarities in the risks posed by SB 840 and ABX1-1. “[T]he single payer plan, to be financed primarily by a 12 percent payroll tax, would have run up a deficit unless its managers could have slowed the growth in health care costs to below the level of the growth in wages — an extremely unlikely prospect. To control those deficits, the commission to be put in charge of health care would have been empowered to cut benefits and levy co-payments on consumers. Hardly a risk-free undertaking.”
ABX1-1 was subjected to extraordinary scrutiny. What’s surprising is that such vetting is extraordinary. Major legislative initiatives — especially on issues that touch the lives of Californians as profoundly as health care reform — should be put under an ABX1-1-like microscope. This kind of detailed evaluation is, after all, what legislators are supposed to do. If some popular proposals are found to offer nothing more than a false sense of hope, so be it. Better to learn that now than after it’s enacted.
More significantly, it’s this approach that will help lawmakers find responsible ways to address challenging and complex issues. Ways that few might consider perfect, but that the majority can conclude with confidence, is an improvement to the status quo.
Let the scrutiny begin.