More Government Health Care?

AUG. 23, 2010

By KATY GRIMES

“Consumer friendly, seamless enrollment, affordable health coverage is on the way in California,” says Sen. Elaine Alquist, D-Santa Clara. What’s more,  “an independent public entity not affiliated with an agency or department” will bring it about.

Last Friday, the Assembly approved legislation that will start the process to establish government-sponsored health insurance in California. The bills will create the California Health Benefits Exchange to apply for, and receive, federal health care funds. The exchange is the California arm of President Barack Obama’s recently enacted federal health care act, and would allow people to compare insurance plans and buy coverage through a “consumer-friendly” website.

The exchange will be governed by a five-member board, with the membership made up of the Secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency as well as other members appointed by the governor, the Senate Rules Committee and the Assembly speaker.

But the measures lack the sweeping support some might assume. Many Republican lawmakers have objected as the bills have traveled through legislative committees. Every committee vote has been divided along party lines, or with Republicans abstaining. Their primary objection has been the continuing attempt to expand government while the state strains under a $19 billion budget deficit.

But Assemblyman Bill Monning, D-Santa Cruz, recently spoke in support of one of the bills. “It will enable the state to obtain more federal money,” Monning said in support of SB 900.

Monning is also an author of a companion bill, AB1602, which is co-authored by Assembly Democrats John Perez and Karen Bass, as well as Democratic Senators Alquist and Steinberg.  This companion bill is currently in the Senate and would enact the “California Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.”

According to a Senate analysis, SB 900 will “generate annual costs in 2011 through 2014 of $1 million to $2 million,” to provide the necessary funding in the creation of the exchange. This bill requires the appointed board to apply for federal funds that are provided for federal health reform.

Federal funding to establish the exchange will be available from 2011 until Jan. 1, 2015, at which time the exchange must be self-sustaining. The federal government recently announced the availability of the initial allocation of $1 million per state to help states begin to establish exchanges.  Applications for state funding are due September 1, 2010, which is why the push is on in the legislature to get the companion bills passed.

A primary function of the exchange will be to administer federally funded insurance subsidies for low-income people. According to government estimates and the senate analysis, by 2016 there will be between three million and eight million individuals and employees of small firms who will be purchasing coverage through the exchange.

SB 900 passed the Assembly on party lines (49-25) but is headed back to the Senate for consideration of Assembly amendments.


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