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Children’s healthcare likely on governor’s agenda

Groups that want California to support universal healthcare for the state’s
children are looking to the governor’s office with growing optimism, despite
the veto of such a bill earlier this year.

“This is high on their radar screen,” said Wendy Lazarus co-president of the
Children’s Partnership, a group that advocates for low-income children.
“They’ve certainly suggested that they want to do something in 2006.”

The Partnership is part of a coalition of groups that are working to qualify
an initiative for next November’s election. The Tobacco Tax, Disease
Prevention and Children’s Health Insurance Act of 2006 would fund provide
$435 million to cover 800,000 uninsured children by adding a $1.50 tax to
the price of a pack of cigarettes. If it passed, the measure could take in
$1.5 billion a year, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office. The
remainder of the money would be used to fund a variety of other health
programs, including disease prevention and anti-smoking campaigns.

The governor’s spokesman, Rob Stutzman, said the governor is evaluating a
number of ideas around children’s healthcare coverage and had not endorsed
any bill or initiative.

However, the initiative would address the concerns articulated by
Schwarzenegger in his veto message of AB 772, the bill by Assemblymembers
Wilma Chan, D-Oakland, and Dario Frommer, D-Glendale, which would have
provided health insurance for all California children. At the time,
Schwarzenegger said he supported the idea in concept but said he could not
sign it without a funding source.

The optimism among advocates that the governor may take steps to cover
uninsured children reflects changing political realities, both in California
and nationwide. Illinois enacted a law to this year to guarantee coverage to
children. Several other states, including Texas, have lesser plans but have
expanded the number of low-income children they will cover.

Meanwhile, the governor’s loss in the special election and staff changes
that have brought Democrats into the Horseshoe has raised speculation that
Schwarzenegger shift his policy goals in an effort to reclaim the political
center before next year’s election.

If the governor is looking to recast himself as a centrist, health care
policy would be a natural for him to tackle. Already the administration has
backed away from some of the unpopular health care stands that got him into
trouble this year. In the days after the special election, the governor
dropped his effort to oppose the five-to-one patient-to-nurse ratio the
California Nurses Association had won. Meanwhile, the CNA put out an
aggressively-worded press release calling for “genuine reforms,” including
“universal healthcare based on a single standard of quality care for all.”

The nurses are backing SB 840, the single payer healthcare bill proposed by
Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Los Angeles. It would provide health insurance for
every citizen in California out of a single fund, paid for with a
combination of existing federal funds and insurance premiums charged
individuals.

Proponents of the bill have argued that it would merely shift the cost the
state is already paying in the form of emergency room visits for indigent
patients. Kuehl also sponsored the legislation establishing the five-to-one
patient to nurse ratio.

“It’s still very early in the process, but we’re working very closely with
her,” said Charles Idelson, a spokesman for the CNA. “That’s the key bill in
California at this point. That’s the one that’s live.”

However, given California’s budget crunch, many expect SB 840 to join a long
list of other dead bills that would have provided universal healthcare in
the state. The one that came closest was SB 2, the so-called Employer
Mandate bill that was signed into law by Gray Davis in 2003 but defeated by
referendum the next year, in the form of Proposition 72. Another bill, AB
1670, the so-called Individual Mandate bill, died in the Assembly Revenue &
Taxation Committee in April, despite gaining support from the business
community.

Still, many say a health plan for children could prove political viable,
even while more ambitious plans fail.

“We would eventually like to see that everyone have insurance,” said Peter
Warren, a spokesman for the California Medical Association. “But that’s not
going to happen immediately. It’s politically a lot harder to attack a
program for young people.”


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