Capitol Alert

‘Woefully incomplete’ universal health bill dead for the year in California

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon put the brakes on a sweeping plan to overhaul the health care market in California Friday, calling the bill “woefully incomplete.”

Rendon announced plans to park the bill to create a government-run universal health care system in Assembly Rules Committee “until further notice” and give senators time to fill in holes that the bill does not currently address.

“Even senators who voted for Senate Bill 562 noted there are potentially fatal flaws in the bill, including the fact it does not address many serious issues, such as financing, delivery of care, cost controls, or the realities of needed action by the Trump administration and voters to make SB 562 a genuine piece of legislation,” Rendon said.

Democratic Sens. Ricardo Lara and Toni Atkins, who introduced the proposal, acknowledged the bill was dead for the year. Lara and Atkins had described the bill as a work in progress when it passed the Senate earlier this month without a funding plan. A legislative analysis pegged the cost at $400 billion.

The abrupt announcement shields members of the Assembly from having to take a difficult vote that could be used against them by critics or supporters of the policy.

The decision serves a major blow to the California Nurses Association, a vocal supporter of the legislation, and is unlikely to endear Rendon to newly energized activists within his Democratic Party, who greeted him with loud boos at the state convention last month.

RoseAnn DeMoro, the outspoken leader of the nurses union, has pressed for the legislation to become a litmus test of sorts in next year’s elections, even threatening incumbent lawmakers with primary challenges if they refused to give their support.

The activists, led by the nurses union, have held large rallies outside the state Capitol where speakers took aim at recalcitrant Democrats, including Gov. Jerry Brown who earlier this year questioned how the state could afford to pay for the legislation.

Their calls have gone national. At a speech in Los Angeles earlier this year, Sen. Bernie Sanders, who plans to introduce similar legislation at the federal level, issued a message of his own to the Democratic-controlled Legislature: “Please lead the country and pass the single-payer bill.”

Deborah Burger, the nurses’ association co-president, said the late announcement was “a cowardly act, developed in secret without engaging the thousands of Californians who have rallied to enact real health care reform.”

“The California Nurses Association condemns the decision by Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon to destroy the aspirations of millions of Californians for guaranteed health care without being bankrupted or forced to skip needed care,” Burger added. “The people of California are counting on the Legislature to protect them now, not sometime next year, and as polls have shown, Californians support this proposal by a wide majority.”

Rendon said he was encouraged by conversations the bill started.

“Because this is the first year of a two-year session, this action does not mean SB 562 is dead,” Rendon said. “In fact, it leaves open the exact deep discussion and debate the senators who voted for SB 562 repeatedly said is needed.”

The goal of Senate Bill 562 is to provide care to every Californian, regardless of residency status or income. The bill wipes out the current health insurance market and authorizes the government to negotiate prices for services with doctors, hospitals and other providers.

Before the Senate vote, Lara and Atkins acknowledged that the bill lacked critical language describing how the state would come up with the money. At the time, they said the bill would be amended to include a funding plan before an Assembly floor vote and return to the Senate before it reached the governor’s desk.

“We are disappointed that the robust debate about health care for all that started in the California Senate will not continue in the Assembly this year,” Lara and Atkins said in a statement. “This issue is not going away, and millions of Californians are counting on their elected leaders to protect the health of their families and communities.”

Rendon said the effort to create a universal health care system is moving on other fronts, and that supporters had talked about possibly crafting an initiative for the 2018 ballot. In response, the nurses said they will work to revive the bill in the Legislature and declined to discuss options for an initiative.

The health care debate also has flared up in the governor’s race. Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa compared unfunded health care promises to “snake oil,” a not-so-veiled blow at rival Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has pledged to support a universal health system if elected governor.

Taryn Luna: 916-326-5545, @TarynLuna