Assembly panel approves bill for universal health care coverage

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Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, CA — An Assembly committee approved a bill Tuesday that would mandate Californians buy health insurance coverage much like drivers are required to purchase auto insurance.

Although California voters and politicians repeatedly have rejected forcing individuals and employers to pay for a universal insurance program, lawmakers are seeking to capitalize on the momentum from a new Massachusetts law that will make that state the first in the country to establish mandatory health insurance.

“We have a choice about whether we’re going to stay stuck in the mud,” said Assemblyman Joe Nation, D-San Rafael. “We have a situation where we have 20 percent of the population without health insurance.”

The Assembly Health Committee on Tuesday held the first hearings on two proposals from Nation and Assemblyman Keith Richman, R-Chatsworth, that both lawmakers said would insure the estimated 6.5 million Californians who lack health insurance. The committee approved Nation’s bill 9-3 but rejected Richman’s bill.

At the center of both bills is a mandate that individuals be responsible for getting themselves health insurance a controversial proposal that taxpayer and consumer groups warned could lead to higher premiums, more uninsured people and increased medical bankruptcies.

“The problem with the health care system is that health insurance is unaffordable or unavailable,” said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access, a statewide health care consumer advocacy coalition of more than 200 groups. “It’s not that there’s people who don’t want coverage.”

Both bills would require that health insurance companies offer an essential benefit plan, which would cover medically necessary services to the country’s largest population of uninsured. But that’s where similarities appear to end.

Nation’s bill would create a benefits fund that would be financed by employers that do not offer health insurance to their workers, individual premiums and state-appropriated dollars.

Meanwhile, Richman said individuals alone should be asked to pay for their health insurance. Aside from low-income families who would qualify for assistance, Richman’s bill would mandate Californians buy coverage that carries at least a $5,000 deductible.

Critics said both bills fail to address the problem skyrocketing health care costs and barriers that preclude individuals with pre-existing medical conditions from buying affordable coverage.

“Requiring something people cannot afford is not a solution to solving the health care crisis,” said Jerry Flanagan, health care advocate at The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

Committee chair Wilma Chan endorsed Nation’s bill, crediting him for amending his bill to exempt individuals who cannot afford health insurance. Nevertheless, she cautioned the bill needs more work.

California voters have been opposed to forcing private employers from paying health insurance costs.

In 2004, voters narrowly nullified a state law that would have required large and midsize employers to help pay for health insurance for their workers.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers have blocked legislation in the past that would have created a state-run health care program.

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney last week approved legislation requiring all individuals to obtain health insurance by July 2007. Those who can afford to buy insurance but fail to sign up will face increasing state tax penalties and a fine.

However, Romney, a Republican, vetoed eight elements of the law, including a $295 per employee fee levied on employers that do not offer insurance. The Democrat-controlled state House and Senate are expected to override the governor’s vetoes as early as this week.

California lawmakers say the task facing their state is much greater because there are an estimated 6.5 million people without health insurance, a number greater than the entire population of Massachusetts, which has 6.3 million residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

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