Sheila Kuehl on ABX1-1

Assembly Bill X1-1, the California health care reform package worked out by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, will receive its first Senate hearing on January 16th before the Senate Health Committee. (Update as of January 14, 2008: It appears the Senate Health Committee will take up ABX1-1 on January 23rd, not the 16th). This hearing will focus more on the policy issues underlying the legislation. While the financing scheme underpinning the bill will no doubt be debated, that topic is more in the purview of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which will hear the bill later, assuming the Health Committee moves it forward.

Which it is nearly certain to do. However, that doesn’t mean the Health Committee hearing will likely be an easy time for sponsors of ABX1-1. That’s because Senator Sheila Kuehl chairs the Health Committee.

Senator Kuehl is intelligent and politically savvy, a potent combination. She won’t frustrate Senator President Pro Tem Don Perata’s plans for ABX1-1. If he insists the bill move out of her Committee, it’s will in all likelihood move out of her Committee. But that doesn’t mean Senator Kuehl will give the bill a free ride. Expect tough questions and an insistence on thorough answers.

In anticipation of the January 16th hearing, I thought it would be interesting to explore Senator Kuehl’s views on ABX1-1, the Health Care Security and Cost Containment Act as it is officially known. To get straight to the bottom line: she doesn’t like it.

Senator Kuehl has written extensively over the past year on the Governor’s health care reform efforts. As the most ardent advocate of a government-run, single-payer system, Senator Kuehl was predisposed against the public-private sector approach advocated by the Governor to begin with. And she approves of little of what’s contained in the bill that emerged, or in the way ABX1-1 was fashioned.

Process: Back when it looked like the legislative leaders and the Governor might produce a bill before the regular legislative session ended in mid-September, Senator Kuehl posted a statement on her web site warning “[t]he prospect of legislative staff, sitting behind closed doors, hastily crafting a 100-page health reform ‘compromise’, to be pushed through the legislature with little or no public input over the course of the next 14 days, is deeply irresponsible.  Frankly, given the example of the energy deregulation bill, we ought to know better. ”

As it turns out, it took a special session and several more months of negotiations to work out the compromise that became ABX1-1. And while there was extensive consultation with the public and stakeholders, it was only avialable in printed form hours before the Assembly passed the legislation on December 17th.

No one can seriously claim the bill was thoroughly vetted by Assembly Members prior to that vote. Given her previous statements, it’s clear Senator Kuehl will want to make sure it receives the review legislation this complex — and this important — deserves.

Policy: The vetting will no doubt be thorough. There’s not a lot in ABX1-1 Senator Kuehl likes. In an essay posted on her site shortly after the Assembly vote, Senator Kuehl makes it clear she’s underwhelmed with the bill’s scope and unhappy with its approach to addressing health care in California. “The press has described the bill in breathless prose as a ‘giant leap’ for health coverage.  Unfortunately, this is not quite the case, depending on who you are and how and where you work…. [S]ome of the provisions of the bill [are] actually harmful to regular, working-class and middle-class families.  And it provides less help than advertised for poor families, as well.”

She objects to the characterization of the bill as “providing” health care coverage to residents, noting that it’s more accurate to say “Californians would be required to buy insurance with no caps on premiums, no regulation of the cost of insurance or medical expense, no maximum deductibles, and no floor on how little coverage you can buy and satisfy the legal requirement.”

She laments the failure of the bill to define the minimum coverage Californians must have. And how the bill deals with recission of policies by carriers. And how insurers would still be able to maintain provider networks. And how medical assistants working in retail clinics would be subject to less supervision by Nurse Practitioners and Physician’s Assistants.

In short, she finds a lot not to like in the bill.

Senator Kuehl supports creation of a single payer system for California not out of political calculation, but from deeply held beliefs that it’s the right approach for the state and the nation. She knows that if ABX1-1 becomes law it will make it harder to pass her bill, introduced in the past two legislative sessions as Senate Bill 840, to succeed.

As I’ve noted previously, many progressives who support SB 840 seem willing to accept ABX1-1 as a partial victory. Senator Kuehl and a significant number of her strongest supporters are not. Senator Kuehl was one of the few Democrats in the State Senate to vote against AB 8 last September, the health care reform plan sponsored by Speaker Nunez and Senator Perata. Based on her writing, she’s doesn’t think ABX1-1 is much of an improvement.

Meanwhile, her allies, the California Nurses Association are actively campaigning against the bill. They’ve gone so far as to include snippets of a speech by Senator Barack Obama — without his or his campaign’s permission — in radio ads opposing ABX1-1.

None of this means ABX1-1 won’t make it through the Senate Health Committee. It is all but certain to do so. What it does mean is that, at long last, ABX1-1 will have a thorough, rigorous and comprehensive vetting. Whether you support or oppose the bill, that can only be a good thing.

(Note: A January 14th editorial in the San Diego Union provides more insights into Senator Kuehl’s concerns about ABX-1-1. My thanks to agent Bill Robinson for pointing this out).