Dan Morain

Senator does good but must pay tribute

With measles breaking out in California, Democratic Sens. Richard Pan of Sacramento, at podium, and Ben Allen of Santa Monica introduce legislation that would end California’s vaccine exemption loophole during a news conference Wednesday in Sacramento.
With measles breaking out in California, Democratic Sens. Richard Pan of Sacramento, at podium, and Ben Allen of Santa Monica introduce legislation that would end California’s vaccine exemption loophole during a news conference Wednesday in Sacramento. rpench@sacbee.com

Politicians make trade-offs.

They covet office, and the prestige and power it provides. The opportunity to do good while doing well is one of the great privileges of public service. To win that privilege, however, politicians need money. Once elected, they get to make important, consequential decisions, but they must pay tribute to the interests that helped put them there.

Surrounded by young mothers cradling their babies, Richard Pan looked very senatorial the other day as he held a news conference to announce important legislation that would all but compel parents to get their children vaccinated.

“Our current laws are insufficient,” Pan said, clearly passionate about the issue. A pediatrician, Pan is well qualified to deliver the important message that measles can kill, and that too few parents are getting their children immunized.

But Pan’s occupation didn’t put him in office. He serves the state and his Sacramento district because he defeated veteran Democratic politician Roger Dickinson last November, in a race that cost $6.5 million. The Service Employees International Union, which represents state employees and hospital workers, spent $1 million-plus to help elect him.

The SEIU and its United Healthcare Workers West unit is enmeshed in a long-running war with Prime Healthcare, a company that owns 17 California hospitals and seeks to buy six financially distressed hospitals in the Bay Area and Southern California from Daughters of Charity.

Like most unions, the SEIU has a research unit staffed with top-notch, though ideological, investigators. Its researchers concluded that a Prime hospital in Redding called 911 to move patients at rates higher than other hospitals; Prime disputes that.

Pan provided a willing ear when the SEIU and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees suggested a bill that would expand a state law that already makes it a crime for hospitals to dump patients. As a happy aside, the bill could give the SEIU ammunition in its fight to block Prime’s purchase of the Daughters of Charity chain.

Pan’s Senate Bill 145 “would prohibit a general acute care hospital, acute psychiatric hospital, or special hospital from causing a patient with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or greater to be transported to another location, except when the patient is either medically stabilized or appropriately transferred to another health facility.”

In other words, don’t dump patients, even if they’re drunk.

The union’s allegations are serious. Hospitals that dump patients can be sued. State and federal funding can be suspended. Physicians must sign off on patient discharges, so medical licenses could be at risk if they authorized 911 calls without stabilizing patients.

“It’s frivolous legislation that is a payback for a political favor,” said Fred Ortega, Prime’s director of governmental relations.

In other days, in other legislatures, a senator might have taken the union’s information, thanked its lobbyists, and instructed staffers to look into it. If the aides confirmed the story, the senator might have convened oversight hearings. If the legislation was necessary, the senator would have set about persuading other legislators to vote for it.

Not now, not in this Legislature. Here, legislators hold news conferences, fire off bills and ask questions later.

Pan didn’t talk to Prime before introducing the bill, but said he’d “welcome Prime coming in and explaining why its numbers are so different.” The facts, he said, will emerge when the bill is heard in policy committees.

In the bill factory we call the Legislature, however, busy legislators strictly limit the time allotted for witnesses to speak in committees and give most bills little more than cursory review.

For SEIU, time is of the essence. Attorney General Kamala Harris has a deadline of Feb. 20 to decide whether to approve Daughters of Charity’s sale of the six hospitals to Prime Healthcare. Daughters of Charity warns it will be forced into bankruptcy if the sale is rejected.

As she runs for a U.S. Senate seat that will open in 2016, Harris faces another one of those trade-offs.

If she approves the sale, she will anger SEIU, which has donated no less than $204,000 to her two campaigns for attorney general. The union could be endlessly helpful to Harris in her Senate campaign and in any future campaigns.

“We hope she rejects the sale. There is no middle ground on this,” said David Kieffer of SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West. “We don’t think Prime’s track record warrants allowing it to have a larger footprint. It is an ethically challenged company.”

If Harris rejects the sale, and Daughters of Charity goes bankrupt, Harris could be forced to answer to rank-and-file workers whose contracts and retirement benefits could be jeopardized.

Rejection also would anger the California Nurses Association, another Harris supporter. The California Nurses Association, a rival of SEIU’s, represents registered nurses at Daughters of Charity hospitals, and supports Prime’s purchase.

“The primary consideration has to be the health and safety of the communities,” said Chuck Idelson, spokesman for California Nurses Association.

Prime’s founder, Prem Reddy, a physician, specializes in taking over troubled hospitals, including 17 in California, but has been on a buying spree in other states, ever since Harris rejected Prime’s purchase of a hospital in 2011.

Not without his resources, Reddy engages in politics, having spent $4.5 million on campaigns since 2009, including $2,500 to Pan, money he no doubt would like back. Prime’s donations include $3 million to the California Hospital Association’s political arm.

This story has many twists. One more is that the California Hospital Association joined with the SEIU last year to create a political action committee, which spent no less than $543,000 to help elect Pan. What the hospital association will do about Pan’s dumping bill remains to be determined.

“We are discussing the bill and its consequences with SEIU-UHW,” Jan Emerson-Shea, spokeswoman for the hospital association, said in an email.

No one can one defend patient dumping. As Pan says, emergency rooms should be safe places where anyone, no matter their ability to pay or their sobriety, receives treatment. But the bill is not about dumping. It is part of Pan’s trade-off. He is enabled to push universal vaccination with all the power of his public office, so long as he remembers how he got there.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain.