Assembly speaker proposes healthcare plan;

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State Assembly speaker says more employers should help pay for medical insurance.

The Los Angeles Times

SACRAMENTO, CA — In anticipation of tough talks next year with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on how to extend health insurance to more Californians, the state Assembly leader on Thursday proposed requiring all but the smallest businesses to help pay for their workers’ insurance.

The plan from Speaker Fabian Nuñez, a Los Angeles Democrat, comes a week after the Democratic leader of the state Senate announced a similar proposal and days ahead of one expected from the Republican governor.

It’s not clear whose ideas will prevail, but all have vowed to find a way to expand the safety net of insurance under Californians who face enormous costs in the event of serious injury or illness.

To reach the estimated 6 million residents who lack health insurance, Nuñez proposed building on an existing system — 71% of California employers already offer health insurance benefits. Experts say most of the state’s uninsured work low-wage jobs.

“We don’t want to fix something that’s not broken,” Nuñez said.

In the past, Nuñez has endorsed replacement of the state’s patchwork of private and public insurers with a single state-run insurer who would cover every California resident. But in a news conference at UC Davis Children’s Hospital in Sacramento, Nuñez called such a plan “something the governor will never support.”

He said he and the governor found “a lot of common ground” in recent talks.

Schwarzenegger hailed the speaker’s endeavor in generic terms, much as he did the proposal last week by Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) to require all employers and workers to share health insurance costs.

“We all agree — the current system is broken and needs to be fixed,” Schwarzenegger said. “I will release my plans in the new year and with the same bipartisan spirit we worked in last year. I know that meaningful healthcare reform can be achieved.”

Both legislative leaders embraced the concept of requiring employers to either provide health insurance to workers or pay a percentage of payroll to a state agency that would negotiate coverage.

But unlike Perata, Nuñez would not require all Californians to prove they have health insurance when they pay taxes. And while Perata’s plan would apply to all employers, Nuñez’s would exclude businesses with a payroll of less than $100,000 and those with a single employee.

Nuñez called the state’s estimated 763,000 uninsured children a top priority, and said they could be covered through his requirement for employers and by expanding Medi-Cal and Healthy Families programs. Both Nuñez and Perata would extend those to people making less than 300% of the federal poverty level, or $60,000 for a family of four.

Perata’s plan offered no help for unemployed adults. Nuñez said it could take five years to find the money to extend insurance to those Californians.

Business groups complained that both plans — which are missing key details, such as an overall cost — impose an expensive burden on employers.

“The problem with a mandate is that this is a tax on employers and their employees regardless of whether they’re making any money,” said Allan Zaremberg, president of the California Chamber of Commerce.

Assembly Republicans, who are expected to unveil their own health plan soon, rejected the Nuñez proposal as a new tax.

“So far, we have not seen any proposals that address the root of the problem — the high cost of healthcare,” said Mike Villines of Clovis, leader of the Assembly’s minority Republicans.

Jerry Flanagan, health director with the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, said insurance profits and administrative expenses are the primary accelerators of healthcare costs. “We need to eliminate waste before we require people to buy health insurance,” Flanagan said.
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