Capitol Alert

As Trump takes office, California Democrats up pressure to preserve Obamacare

Senator Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina during session in the Senate chambers in Sacramento, Calif. on March 11, 2013.
Senator Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina during session in the Senate chambers in Sacramento, Calif. on March 11, 2013.

Despite a cold reception in Washington, California Democratic lawmakers are ratcheting up political pressure on congressional Republicans and the incoming Donald Trump administration to halt plans to dismantle President Barack Obama’s federal health care law, with the latest action in House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s hometown of Bakersfield on Thursday.

McCarthy, a Republican, has voiced support for repealing Obamacare, a plan that has emerged as the incoming Trump administration’s key priority this year.

At a Senate Health Committee hearing in Bakersfield, Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-Azusa, said California should defend progress made under Obama.

He issued a statement calling the Republican agenda “reckless” and, without a sufficient replacement plan, said it represents “callous disregard for the millions of people who rely on (Obamacare) for their health care.” Repeal would deal a devastating blow to millions of Californians – especially those who live in the Central Valley – Hernandez said.

“This is a very real threat,” he said in an interview.

Residents of McCarthy’s central California district are among those who stand to lose the most, said Hernandez, a physician and chair of the health committee. Of the roughly 13.6 million Californians enrolled in Medi-Cal, a large share live in the southern Central Valley counties of Fresno, Tulare, Merced, Madera, Kern and Stanislaus, according to data compiled by state health officials.

An estimated 210,000 Californians could lose their jobs under a complete repeal and as many as 5 million people are at risk of losing access to health care, recently released figures show. Showcasing their stories could be an effective antidote to Republican lawmakers and widespread promises to repeal Obamacare, Hernandez and other Democratic lawmakers said.

McCarthy’s office did not immediately return requests for comment, but a spokesman pointed to an op-ed by McCarthy published in The Sacramento Bee Thursday. In it, McCarthy argued that Obamacare is deeply flawed. He pointed to rising costs for premiums and few insurance providers in Covered California, the state-run insurance marketplace, among other factors.

“It is true that millions of Californians receive health insurance coverage through Obamacare...but the number of insured matters little when the quality of the insurance is so dismal,” McCarthy wrote.

Lawmakers defended the Affordable Care Act Thursday, while acknowledging that it is not perfect.

To date, California has seen the largest drop in the ranks of the uninsured compared with the rest of the country, according to Census Bureau data. As of 2015, the 8.6 percent of Californians were uninsured, down from 22 percent in 2011. That number is expected to drop further this year as more people sign up for the state’s low-income health program, according to projections in Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed 2017-18 budget.

“It’s been repeal, repeal, repeal, but there has been no concrete solution,” Hernandez said. “It’s put fear into the people of this state and this country.”

Julie Otero, a domestic caregiver who testified at Thursday’s hearing along with other advocates and health officials, credited Medi-Cal with saving her life.

“If it wasn’t for this program, I would not be here today,” said Otero, who has chronic lung disease. She said the national debate over health benefits, amid rising insurance rates for some, has spurred within her a call to action.

“It’s not about politics for me,” she said. “Without this program, we’re not only looking at job loss, we’re looking at life loss.”