California lawmakers advance universal health care proposal

(The Center Square) – California lawmakers voted to advance a bill proposing a major overhaul of the state’s health care system on Tuesday, approving a measure that could make the state the first in the nation to provide universal health care for all.

The measure, Assembly Bill 1400, proposes a universal health care system in California called “CalCare.” The single-payer system would provide government-funded health care for all California residents. It would be managed by a board of appointed health care experts, five appointed by the governor and each chamber’s majority leader choosing two more.

The Assembly Health Committee approved the bill along party lines Tuesday. The Appropriations Committee must also approve the measure before consideration by the full Assembly.

“Californians need quality, affordable health care,” Assemblyman Jim Wood, chair of the Assembly Health Committee, said Tuesday. “They’re beyond impatient, angry, they’re scared, and they’re desperate. I think you’ve heard some of that this evening. I think their anger is justified. We need to hear them and we need to respond.”

Because the bill was introduced in February 2021, it must be approved by the Assembly by Jan. 31 to meet legislative deadlines. It’s likely to set off a debate in the Legislature, particularly over how the plan is funded and what it means for retired workers and seniors who benefit from existing health care plans.

The bill’s principal author, Assemblyman Ash Kalra, D-San Jose, unveiled a plan last week to raise taxes for certain individuals and businesses to fund the single-payer health care proposal. Kalra’s Assembly Constitutional Amendment 11 is a separate funding mechanism bill to raise taxes for people making over $149,500 and levy additional taxes on businesses.

CalTax estimated that the proposal would raise taxes by $163 billion, representing the largest tax hike in state history.

Kalra, however, argued Tuesday that CalCare overall would reduce health care costs across the board for both individuals and businesses. Kalra said health insurance premiums had risen 47% since 2011 – outpacing wages and inflation and placing a heavier burden on businesses and taxpayers alike.

“With CalCare, we have the opportunity to move California to a single-payer system of pay for health care services – a system that countless reputable academic studies have concluded time and again will save our state tens of billions of dollars a year in health care costs,” Kalra said during Tuesday’s hearing.

Kalra emphasized Tuesday that AB 1400 is a policy bill that would pave the way for the separate funding bill, Assembly Constitutional Amendment 11, to move forward later. If ACA 11 is eventually passed by two-thirds of the Legislature, it will go to voters for approval.

Aside from its funding mechanism, Kalra’s single-payer proposal received pushback from several legislators during Tuesday’s hearing, who voiced concerns over how the program would impact retired Californians with existing health care plans.

“People have spent their entire lives paying into a system, and then we’re going to rip the carpet out from underneath them for a program that isn’t even funded,” Assemblyman Heath Flora, R-Ripon, said Tuesday.

In response to Flora’s concerns, Kalra explained that CalCare would provide guaranteed health care for all and maintain access for those on existing plans. He also said he would work with labor organizations to ensure that retirees who earned benefits through CalPERS and moved out of the state will still receive coverage.

Several other lawmakers, who agreed that reforms to the healthcare system are desperately needed, also criticized Kalra for not making additional changes to the bill after it was introduced last year. A few Democratic legislators said Tuesday they would vote to advance the bill in committee but would not support it on the Assembly floor if he made no changes.

“I will give you an opportunity to change the way you’re working on this critical issue,” Assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, D-Winters, said on Tuesday. “Against my better judgment, I will cast a reluctant ‘I’ vote for you today. But, Mr. Kalra, I will vote ‘no’ on this on the floor. You cannot tell me that a product that will completely change the health system for 40 million Californians was perfect the day it was introduced.”

Despite pushback from legislators, Kalra, alongside supporters of universal health care, praised the committees' decision to approve the measure and send it on to Appropriations.

"As the single-payer movement continues to gain momentum, we signal to corporate interests that enough is enough; healthcare is a human right and it's high time we reform our broken healthcare system," Kalra said in a statement on Wednesday.

If enacted, Kalra estimates the program would be implemented in 2024 at its earliest.

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