Capitol Alert

Saying no to the nurses: California Democrats aren’t pushing government-run health care this year

Many California Democrats say they support single-payer health care, but none introduced a new version of the state’s landmark single-payer bill before a key deadline last week.

Stephanie Roberson, a lobbyist for the California Nurses Association, said the union was in talks with Sen. Mike McGuire about running a bill this year, but those discussions fell through.

“Senator McGuire’s admission that he could not get enough political consensus to move a bill around this issue is troubling,” Roberson said in a statement. “To not have a comprehensive solution on the table in the first year of a two-year session in the most progressive legislature in the country is baffling.”

Roberson said the nurses will continue to pursue a single-payer system in California and are also introducing a bill at the federal level.

McGuire’s office declined to make him available for an interview, but the Healdsburg Democrat said in a statement he’s still interested in working on the issue.

“As many Californians know, I’m a strong supporter of Medicare for All,” he said. “For legislation as complex and significant as this, and to combat a hostile Trump administration, we need to continue our substantial policy and fiscal discussions to move this important issue to the next step.”

The California Nurses Association waged a fierce campaign in support of Senate Bill 562 in 2017. It would have created a government-run system in California to replace private insurance. But that bill didn’t include a way to pay for the system, and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon shelved it that year.

During his gubernatorial campaign, Gavin Newsom endorsed SB562. But since being sworn in as governor, he hasn’t publicly called for lawmakers to introduce a new version.

He says he still supports a single-payer health care system.

“I think it’s inevitable in this country, and I think states will pay an outsize role in terms of advancing the debate,” Newsom told reporters during a visit to the U.S. Capitol on Monday. “Problem is, we need waivers in order to do it.”

Newsom has requested those waivers from the Trump administration, although it’s unlikely the Republican president will approve the request. In the meantime, Newsom has proposed other ways to increase health care coverage, such as expanding eligibility for the state’s health care coverage to young adults living in the state illegally.

Cost estimates for SB562 varied widely. A University of Massachusetts Amherst analysis commissioned by the nurses union by the found the plan would cost $330 billion annually. The Legislative Analyst’s office estimated it would cost $400 billion, twice the state budget.

It would have required new taxes to cover health insurance costs for California consumers.

A study by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California last year found a majority of likely California voters say they support single-payer health care, but only if it doesn’t raise their taxes.

Assemblyman Jim Wood, who leads the Assembly Health Committee, said he doesn’t think most people understand what such a system would entail. He mentioned a town hall meeting last week in which a constituent conflated “single payer,” “medicare for all” and “universal health care,” three different ideas.

“Fundamentally, people don’t really know what they want,” he said. “What I think people want, based on everything we hear, is I think they want access to high quality health care and they want a reasonable cost.”

Although he said he supports giving everyone health care access, Wood said he thinks a new version of SB562 would be “premature” because the state still doesn’t have a clear plan to fund and implement a single-payer system.

He pointed to other bills he’s pursuing, such as one to create tax credits or incentives for middle-income people to help them afford health insurance.

Roberson said the nurses don’t think simply improving the existing system is enough.

“We can’t, as leaders, just protect what we have because we fundamentally believe that health care is human right,” she said.

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Sophia Bollag covers California politics and government. Before joining The Bee, she reported in Sacramento for the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times. She grew up in California and is a graduate of Northwestern University.
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