What if California Had Passed Health Care Reform?

California lawmakers recently passed a budget that, at least on paper, may, perhaps close the $42 billion shortfall the state faces in this and the next fiscal year. The budget was due before July 2008. So it was a bit less than eight months overdue. One of the methods required to close the gap was to reduce funding to some of the state’s neediest citizens.

Lawmakers inability to find a budget compromise in a timely fashion and in such a cruel fashion speaks volumes about a dangerous and dysfunctional political system. It brings into question whether California lawmakers can be trusted with something as critical to its citizens as the nature of its health care system, which would have happened had California enacted Assembly Bill X1-1 last year. Given the state’s current economic and political problems, what would have happened had health care reform passed in early 2009?

ABX1-1, you may recall, passed the Assembly, was supported by the Governor, but was defeated in the Senate early last year. A major reason for its demise was a Legislative Analyst’s Office Report on ABX1-1 that raised serious concerns about the state’s ability to implement the reform package within the $14 billion price tag touted by its supporters, primarily Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. then Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez and then President Pro Tem Don Perata. Using what it considered to be optimistic assumptions of the bill’s sponsors, the LAO concluded the plan would be running a deficit of $300 million. Using more conservative (and what the LAO called, more realistic assumptions), it estimated the health care plan would be running a deficit of $1.5 billion in it’s fifth year and have run up a cumulative deficit of $4 billion during it’s first half-decade of operation.

Supporters of the health care reform bill protested that the LAO report underestimated savings from fixing the state’s broken health care system. They relied on a study conducted by professor Jonathan Gruber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that demonstrated the reform package was a net financial plus for the state.

Yet the Gruber report made some questionable assumptions. The LAO report noted, for example, that the Gruber model “is not designed to estimate the effects of an economic slowdown on population responses” to the various elements of the reform.”  Translation:  if the economy tanks the Gruber analysis doesn’t work. That’s because, according to the LAO report, ABX1-1’s proponents assumed then current growth rates would continue over time. “For example, the cost of expanding Medi-Cal to adults was grown at the projected growth rate for current Medi-Cal expenses, while the wage-based employer fee was projected to grow at the projected growth rate for wages.”

But tank the economy did (and has). Time and again, the LAO report, delivered to the Legislature on January 22, 2008, warned against the danger of mis-predicting the future. “California is subject periodically to slowdowns in economic activity. During these times, unemployment often increases. This reduces the number of Californians with access to employer-provided healthcare. A recession similar to the one California experienced in the early 1990s could result in hundreds of thousands of Californians losing access to employer-provided health care, thereby increasing the costs for the [health care reform] plan.”

Statistics published by the California Economic Development Department puts this into context. In January 2008, when the LAO report was published, the state’s unemployment rate had been below six percent for three years, dipping below five percent in 2006. This compares to the state’s unemployment rate during the 1990s recession of more than nine percent during most of 1992 and 1993, peaking during several months at 9.9 percent. California’s current unemployment, at least during January 2009, was 10.1 percent. The worst case scenario the LAO warned against has arrived.

I don’t bring all this up to deny the need for substantial health care reform. For the state and national economies to recover sooner-than-later, substantial changes to the health care system are necessary. In times of economic dislocation like we are experiencing now, the human need for change in health care is especially acute and poignant. Unemployment is about more than data and statistics, it’s about neighbors and families in pain.

Nor am I raising this issue to gloat over the failure of ABX1-1. A number of the reforms contained in that legislation would have significantly improved California’s health care system.

These statistics, however, point to several truths:

  1. Predicting the future is hard, if not impossible. Any reform package has to make assumptions about the economic environment years from now. And most likely, those estimates will be wrong.
  2. Meaningful health care reform must come from the federal government — state’s simply aren’t equipped to deal with it. This isn’t to say there aren’t good ideas emerging from the states. But they lack the tools needed to deal with unexpected problems. As California has ably demonstrated, states do a poor job of facing economic challenges. They can’t deficit spend. The federal government has a tough time influencing the economy; states simply can’t.

Think about the budget drama of the past eight months. Now think about a health care structure upon which the state’s residents depends being subject to this horrendous display of chaos. It’s more than scary. It’s a nightmare that eventually California — or any state — will likely face if it tries to tackle the complex issues of comprehensive health care reform aimed at achieving anything close to universal coverage. Until states can print money, they will be incapable of shepherding their health systems through economic times like these.

America’s economy will recover. It’s only a matter of time and hard work. The nation’s health care system can be reformed into a truly American-style system that achieves universal — or nearly universal — coverage. It’s also a matter of time, hard work as well as of smart politics able to find common ground among competing factions. It won’t be easy, but it can be done.

No one during the debate over ABX1-1 could have anticipated what’s happened to the economy. The LAO warned against the potential, but even they did not declare this situation likely. Yet here we are. If ABX1-1 had passed the California fiscal crisis would be even worse than it is. And the state’s lawmakers would have been unable to face the challenge.