It has been one year from euphoria to defeat. On the morning of Jan. 8, 2007, I sat on the dais in Sacramento that served as the starting pistol of the comprehensive health reform debate. After years of failed attempts to significantly reform our health care system, it appeared that the combination of the governor’s and the Legislature’s vision and desire would finally result in a breakthrough. Commentators remarked that no matter how the battle over the details of a reform package might play out, the governor’s, the speaker’s and the Senate pro tem’s policy principles were not only sensible, they challenged California to pursue a more ambitious and historic step in the right direction.
Californians delivered a not-so-subtle message to the governor and the Legislature that our health care system is in need of major changes and those changes need to happen now. This sentiment has been reinforced month after month, with pollsters reporting that public opinion data showed health reform enjoyed overwhelming support.
Now, in the wake of the Senate Health Committee’s failure to take action on ABX1, a year after the euphoria of the governor’s comments and the Legislature’s strong desire to get something done, health reform yet again has been blocked. There is no question that Californians’ hopes for achieving comprehensive health reform took a decidedly disappointing step backward, but California’s leaders cannot let it end there.
At this critical juncture, Legislators and the governor must resist the temptation to engage in the requisite ritual of finger-pointing about who is to blame. While assigning fault makes good headlines, it will do next to nothing to help lower health care costs or provide health insurance to a child who needs to see a doctor. Instead, we need political courage in Sacramento to meet the mandate issued by Californians. Now is the time for our leaders to act and deliver a much-needed win for Californians.
So as a former practicing physician, what is my suggested prescription for our leaders? Take those areas of agreement between business, labor, doctors, health providers, and consumer advocates and pass a package that would significantly improve California’s health care system. Such a package would create insurance market reforms; it would extend coverage to California’s 800,000 uninsured kids and give our state the distinction of ensuring that all of our children have health insurance; and it would provide funding for health reform while continuing to support California’s hospitals.
At the same time, our leaders must make certain that the budget deficit does not put the health care system in more jeopardy.
Proposed health care cuts in public programs will likely result in more Californians losing health insurance and will weaken our fragile system even further. Taking a penny-wise but pound-foolish approach in how we handle the budget crisis will mean the difference between success and failure when it comes to health care reform. We need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to protect those vital programs this year. We need to build a bridge to reform, not tear it down before we build it up.
Will these actions have the same level of impact as the proposed health reform package? No. But will they provide critically important and achievable steps that bring California closer to fixing our health care system? Absolutely, and after over a year of intense negotiations and hard work, we must salvage the opportunity to move California forward and produce both a political and policy win that can have profound implications of the future of health care reform in our state and the nation.
Our leaders cannot let this year be remembered for what didn’t happen and the missed opportunities that could have been. Rather, our legislative leaders need to remember that California’s parents, their children, our elderly, and the working poor need action on health reform now. Anything less is wholly unacceptable.