Momentum Gathers for Plan Requiring Health Payments
By LAURENCE DARMIENTO
An effort to greatly expand health coverage through a system that would require businesses to offer it or pay into a state fund is getting a big boost from the California’s topsy-turvy political climate.
State Sen. John Burton’s “pay or play” health care bill, which some had thought might stay tied up in the Legislature until next year, could be headed to Gov. Gray Davis’s desk in a few weeks.
With Democrats fearing that Davis might be replaced with a Republican, work has speeded up to pass the bill and other Democratic priorities before the end of the legislative session on Sept. 12.
Business groups charge that the bill, SB2, is a “job killer” and that the governor will feel compelled to sign it or risk angering labor unions at a time when their ability to mount an extensive get-out-the-vote drive may be his only chance to head off the recall.
“This is getting swept up into recall politics,” said Hal Dash, a political consultant representing the California Association of Health Underwriters, a trade group for medical insurance agents and brokers that’s been pushing for limitations on the measure to soften its blow on business.
Concerns about the legislation were heightened earlier this month after the governor signed a measure allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers’ licenses, a bill he had vetoed last year. The move was widely seen as attempting to shore up his left-wing base of support.
A bipartisan committee of six lawmakers from both houses of the Legislature, including Burton and Assemblyman Dario Frommer, D-Burbank, plans to meet this week and release draft language for the bill.
(The bill has already passed both houses but only in shell form, with details waiting to be inserted.)
Frommer, chairman of the Assembly Health Committee, denied recall politics were playing a part in process, saying it has always been the proponents’ desire to move the bill this year.
He added that the concerns of business are being considered in the drafting process, and that the language will place lesser mandates on the smallest businesses, such as not requiring them to pay for dependent care.
“We are mindful of pressures on business these days,” Frommer said.
As a result, the bill will not cover all the estimated 5 million employees and their dependents who are uninsured. “This is a modest step hopefully we can build on in future years,” he said.
Beth Capell, a lobbyist representing the Service Employees International Union, agreed that the recall gave the bill a sense of urgency. Davis has had a history of signing landmark health care legislation, such as the creation of the first state agency in the nation to police the managed care industry, she noted.
Equally important, though, is the widespread belief that Burton, who will be termed out next year, sees the bill as perhaps the culminating act of his long political career. “Everyone in San Francisco understands this is part of the Burton legacy,” she said.
Burton did not return telephone calls for comment, but his chief spokesman, Dave Sebeck, would only say “this is the kind of thing he came here to do.”