Opinion: Universal Heathcare Now More or Less The Law in California

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Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks about healthcare to the United Domestic Workers. Photo by Chris Jennewein

By Dan Walters | CALmatters Columnist

Providing universal healthcare coverage to 40 million Californians has become the rallying cry for the state’s Democratic Party as it drifts leftward in this election year.

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Kevin de León pushed it hard when he was the president pro tem of the state Senate and was gearing up to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Health insurance zealots went ballistic when Anthony Rendon, the Democratic speaker of the Assembly, refused to immediately take up a single-payer bill that the Senate had approved.

Rendon said he was unwilling to pass a bill that lacked a financing mechanism to generate the hundreds of billions of dollars that universal care would cost.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, in running for governor, pledged to create a universal care system as he dueled with former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who shared Rendon’s skepticism about financing it.

Newsom, who bested Villaraigosa and is now the prohibitive favorite to claim the governorship against token Republican foe John Cox, argued that a universal care system is very doable in a state as large and wealthy as California, if there is the political will to do it.

And now, healthcare for all Californians is a matter of state law, albeit without any real debate on how it would be implemented or financed.

One of the more than two dozen “trailer bills” that were hastily written and enacted to implement the 2018-19 state budget makes that declaration. As described in a legislative staff analysis, Assembly Bill 1810, “establishes the intent of the Legislature to provide coverage and access through a unified financing system for all Californians, to control health care and administrative costs, to ensure high-quality health care, to limit out-of-pocket costs, to train and employ an adequate health care workforce, and to ensure all Californians have timely access to necessary health care.”

Dan Walters

That said, AB 1810 is also something of a political dodge that would let Newsom and other advocates of a single-payer system sidestep the rapid action on the issue they have said could be taken.

The measure creates a five-member “Council on Health Care Delivery Systems,” with three members appointed by the governor and two by the Legislature, to write a plan for universal health care by Oct. 1, 2021, including “a unified financing system.”

Appointing a study commission is a time-honored (or -dishonored) way for politicians to buy time on a controversial issue, in this case nearly three years that would include two election cycles and the remainder of Donald Trump’s first — and, they hope, last — term in the White House.

We’ve had such studies of universal health care already, so the parameters are fairly well known. Healthcare in California costs about $400 billion a year, of which governments cover 70 percent (the federal government 50 percent) and employers and consumers pay the rest.

A single-payer system assumes that the feds would agree to funnel its money through the state, including healthcare of federal and military retirees. It also would require new taxes of at least $100 billion a year to cover the remainder, while presumably relieving consumers and employers of their current costs and providing health coverage to several million Californians, especially undocumented immigrants, who still lack it.

The new commission will probably reach much the same conclusion. But the final decision, if any, will be an exercise in pure power politics with immense economic consequences.


CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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