Toni Atkins grew up without health insurance in a “crossroads out in the middle of nowhere.”
The family lived in rural Virginia, where her father worked as a miner and her mother was a seamstress. Her mom broke an arm at one point, reducing the family to one income while medical bills stacked up.
“We had to get food stamps. It was excruciating,” Atkins said.
Atkins, now a Democratic state senator from San Diego, firmly believes health care coverage should be a right for everyone. She and Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, tried to make that a reality in California this year and failed.
The two senators introduced a bill in the Legislature to wipe out the state insurance market and create a single-payer system, in which government negotiates prices with providers. At least in theory, the system would have worked like Medicare, but applied to the entire state population. People would receive care regardless of income level or immigration status. Californians would pay into the system through taxes, likely based on how much money they earn.
The bill, crafted by the California Nurses Association, came with flaws. It never included a mechanism to fund the $400 billion projected cost, or other key details such as how care would be delivered. The Senate passed it anyway. Late last month Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon announced he was holding the “woefully incomplete” bill in Assembly Rules. He encouraged the Senate to fill in the holes and send the Assembly “workable legislation” next year.
Atkins said they aren’t ready to give up. When the dust settles from the recent fight, she said, they hope to return to the Legislature. She said ultimately it may take a ballot measure to put a system in place.
“We just have to figure out what is the best way forward,” she said. “It’s an issue ripe for discussion.”
For both Atkins, and Lara, it’s also personal.
Atkins grew up in a house with dirt floors and wore glasses paid for by the Lions Club.
Atkins grew up in a house without running water and had an eye exam paid for by the Lions Club. When an aunt died and left the family a small inheritance, her mom sprung for the children’s first trip to the dentist.
She said she was hospitalized for a week at age 12. Doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her.
“We spent years paying off that bill,” she said.
During one floor speech, Atkins told her colleagues that hearing from constituents who fear losing Obamacare brought back her own experiences.
“I’ve been fortunate since I was 24 years of age, I’ve had health coverage,” Atkins said. “And I’d maybe gotten a little removed from that fear and that worry of what it’s like not to have access to health care. Constituents up and down this state, mine, yours, reminded me. And their fear was real. And it was emotional, and it was heart-wrenching.”
Lara has pointed to GOP attempts to repeal Obamacare as a reason why universal health care is necessary in the Golden State. Under congressional proposals, millions stand to lose access to care.
Even Obamacare, however, doesn’t go as far as Lara would like.
Unlike Obamacare or potential replacements, the the universal health care proposal would have expanded health coverage to undocumented Californians, a priority for Lara during his time in office.
For health care, Lara’s family relied on home remedies or drove three hours across the border to Tijuana.
He grew up in East Los Angeles, the son of a factory worker and a seamstress. Both his parents were undocumented when they came to the United States. For health care, they relied on home remedies or drove three hours across the border to Tijuana if someone fell ill, he said.
“And it’s still happening,” he said. “People forgo care because they can’t either afford the drugs or to pay for it. That was us.”
Nearly 200,000 undocumented children became eligible to apply for Medi-Cal last year in a move prompted by legislation Lara introduced. Attempts to expand coverage to undocumented adults have been less successful.
When the bill came up for a June vote in the state Senate, he spoke about his own experience as a child, but also as an adult.
Lara’s father, who he says is now a citizen, had a double heart bypass weeks before the vote.
“But his insurance did not approve his surgery, even though his arteries were 90 percent clogged,” Lara said to his colleagues. “And what we had to do, because a friend told him, is go to the emergency room and lie that you are hurting and that you’re suffering pain. This is what we have to do in this state to receive care nowadays.”
The surgery was successful, and his father’s insurance company decided to pick up the bill after the fact, he said.
“I am not an attorney, I am not an economist and I’m not a health expert, but I am a caring loving son of an immigrant man who contributes greatly to this country and this state,” Lara said. “And will do everything I can to ensure that families like his have access to care.”