There are actually two special sessions in Sacramento right now: one on water; the other on health care reform. For reasons due to the timing of potential initiatives, water is the first focus. And from what I hear it’s not going well.
But that’s legislation under the bridge (sorry). In a few weeks the Legislature will turn it’s attention to health care reform in earnest. There will be tremendous pressure to do something. After the budget fiasco, the failure to address reapportionment, perhaps inaction on water, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Speaker Fabian Nunez and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata need a victory of some kind to salvage the reputation of the the 2007 Legislative Session. This is especially important for the Legislative Leadership who will be asking voters to approve a change to term limit laws on the February ballot. If the initiative passes Speaker Nunez and Senator Perata will likely remain in their positions for several more years. If it fails ….
So health care reform might be the last lifeline left to our heroes. Which means something is likely to emerge from the special session. What’s not known is what.
Many observers I’ve talked to are increasingly pessimistic that comprehensive reform will move forward. They think some insurance market reforms may pass, specifically the requirement that 85 percent of premiums be spent on health care services. But when it comes to insuring more Californians, they consider expansion of Healthy Families eligibility to cover more children is the only likely accomplishment (this would be ironic since approximately $66 million promised for enhancing Healthy Family and MediCal outreach programs was cut from this year’s budget).
This may sound reassuring to those who are concerned lawmakers, in their great need to pass some health care reform legislation will pass bad health care reform legislation. Certainly there’s a lot to be worried about. The 85 percent heatlh care services mandate, as currently proposed, will likely increase premiums and decrease competition, especially in the individual and small group market segments. A requirement that carriers accept all applicants, regardless of their risk profile passes, without an effective mandate for individuals to purchase coverage before they’re on their way to the emergency room, individual insurance premiums will skyrocket and carriers will flee the state. The purchasing pool could become a black hole, sucking up more of the marketplace than is healthy for the state’s economy or the private marketplace. And that’s just the start. There is plenty to fear from getting health care reform wrong.
There’s also much to fear in doing little, or even worse, nothing. There are real problems in today’s health care system. Insurance reforms are a part of what’s needed. It’s not the only part needing a fix, far more important is the need to deal with escalating health care costs. Yet politics being what it is, the focus now is on the insurance industry. If not changes emerge from Sacramento, the demand for “doing something to stop the evil insurance companies” will continue unabated. Doing something, if it’s done right, will enable politicians, the media and the public to focus on deeper and more serious problems.
Another reason to do something right now is to deflate the momentum of building behind single payer alternatives like SB 840. There is likely to be an initiative next year to bring a Canadian-style system south to California. It will be much easier to defeat — as it should be for a host of reasons — if voters perceive lawmakers as addressing their health care worries.
Finally, it’s important to do something constructive on health care reform because it’s the right thing to do. In unveiling his reform package, the Governor state, “The status quo can no longer be everyone’s second choice.” He’s right. The issues have been on the table long enough. What we need now is to address those issues and then move on. What will be interesting to watch is whether the way lawmakers seek to address health care reform is aimed at scratching their political itch or in enacting constructive, meaningful public policy. We’ll know in a few weeks.