The Politics of Health Care in California

The health care business loves politicians who love it with the right kind of reform. Three top lovers are California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, state Democrats Fabian Núñez, Assembly speaker, and Don Perata, Senate leader.

Briefly, health insurers want reform that shifts dollars to them to offset a slide in their employer-based business due to soaring premium prices. The governor’s plan to mandate health insurance differs from that of Núñez/ Perata, Assembly Bill 8, which he vetoed on Oct 12. AB 8 has different insurance requirements in terms of who pays and the amount paid. But neither reform gets at the root causes of the health care problem.

The basic story is simple. Investors own the big health insurance firms. What the insurers don’t spend on health care is profit for investors, elected by nobody. To protect their profits, investors fund politicians of both parties.

Managers for investors’ money have a legal responsibility to them. That puts investors’ needs first and patients’ needs second. Wealth comes before health. That is the law.

In short, the insurers’ profit motive is the problem with the health care system. The California governor and two top state Democrats are perpetuating this problem and calling their solutions reform.

There is a better way to fix California’s broken health care system. State Senator Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) is the sponsor of Senate Bill 840, the California Health Insurance Reliability Act. Under SB 840, the state government would become the single middleman payer, replacing many for-profit insurers.

Schwarzenegger vetoed SB 840 after the Democratic-controlled Legislature passed it in Sept. 2006, as thousands of Sacramento County employees walked off their jobs partly to protest the rising costs of health care.

Recall SB 840 had its day in the 2007 media sun, thanks to the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee. The labor union, which backed Prop. 186, the single payer health care measure on the 1994 state ballot, turned out its female-majority membership to the debut of Michael Moore’s film Sicko in Sacramento’s Crest Theatre this spring. Earlier that day, he testified to the Legislature about the failures of the health care system such as the harm that for-profit insurers cause ill people when delaying and denying them medical care.

The CNA/NNOC joined the AFL-CIO this March and backs SB 840 instead of AB 8, which keeps insurers squarely in the business of financing the delivery of health care. The AFL-CIO’s California Labor Federation supports AB 8. The stance of CNA/NNOC reveals differences in the labor union movement over its relations to the Democratic Party, which takes money from the health care business, like the governor and GOP.

SB 840 began to fade from the media radar screen at the Capitol this July. SB 840 becoming the law would be the end for health insurers. That would end their donating to politicians and buying ads from media outlets. These powerful interests have millions and millions of reasons to maintain this status quo.

Under single payer health care in California, there would be, basically, an expansion of what exists now under Medicare, the federal program for the elderly. There’s no profit motive in the delivery of health care under this single-payer system, which Congressman John Conyers’ (D-MI) HR 676 bill would extend to all U.S. citizens. Crucially, the cost to administer Medicare is a small fraction of what private health insurers cost.

Medicare is not socialized medicine, a term of fear mongering that conceals more than it reveals. In short, Medicare is a single payer for medical providers: chiropractic, dental, emergency services, hospital, home health, infant maternal and long-term care, mental health, outpatient services, physical therapy, prescription drugs, primary and preventive care, rehabilitation (extending to substance abuse), surgical and vision care.

SB 840 will be moving forward at the Capitol in January 2008, said Sara Rogers, a consultant to Sen. Kuehl. Meanwhile, grassroots support is growing for a California constitutional ballot initiative in which voters can decide the fate of a single payer health care measure in November 2008.

“The California Health Security Plan would be free”no co-pays, no deductibles, no premiums”and would provide quality health care to all Californians,” said Jim Smith in a press release. “The Initiative has been submitted to the California Attorney General for a title, summary and issuance of petitions to put it on the ballot. We expect to have the petitions this November.”

A single payer system would end the state’s health care problem that is harming vast numbers of people, such as the seven million who lack medical insurance. Equality of health care should be a birthright for all Californians. Go to

SETH SANDRONSKY lives and writes in Sacramento


Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email