Governor, Democratic rival unveil competing health care plans

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Associated Press

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger used his health care affordability summit Monday to unveil a plan to expand health access for California children as he met with noted business, labor and medical leaders to discuss reforms to the overburdened health care system.

Across campus at the University of California, Los Angeles, state Treasurer and Democratic nominee Phil Angelides staged his own “town hall” event with the associate director of the university’s Center for Heath Policy Research and a handful of senior citizens and university students.

Angelides pledged to sponsor legislation to expand the state’s Healthy Families Program and force all companies with more than 200 employees to provide health insurance for workers and their families a proposal the governor’s re-election campaign said would cost California businesses more than $7 billion.

Angelides’ campaign called that a “phony estimate” and said only 1 percent of businesses have more than 200 employees, and only a small fraction are irresponsible in denying health care insurance to employees.

Still, Angelides’ event was overshadowed by Schwarzenegger’s panel of heavy hitters, but critics said the governor’s meeting failed to address the real cause of spiraling health care costs: medical companies’ skyrocketing profits.

Jerry Flanagan, health care policy director for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, said the summit “danced around the quintessential affordability issues.”

“Simply enrolling students and their families in an inefficient health care system doesn’t make health care affordable,” he said.

Flanagan noted that the conversation never touched on the record profits of insurance companies, whose representatives were among the panelists. He said advertising and salaries have become the fastest-growing component of health care costs outpacing even prescription drugs.

“When they’re at the table and the patients are not, the discussion is all about how we can make consumers use less rather than how we can make health care more affordable,” Flanagan said.

A spokeswoman for Schwarzenegger, Sabrina Lockhart, noted there was a broad range of participants in Monday’s summit and called the meeting a first step in the governor’s plan. She said Schwarzenegger intends to hold more in the future.

“There were a number of issues discussed at the summit today,” Lockhart said. “The entire summit was focused on affordability. The governor believes that the key to increased coverage, the key to access is affordability.”

At the meeting, Service Employees International Union national President Andy Stern pressed the governor to set concrete dates for health care reform rather than just talk about it.

“It’s up to you, governor, as the leader of this state, to say by some time, at some place, we have to have a solution,” he said. “If California does something it will change health care throughout the nation.”

Stern also said the state could force more businesses to provide health insurance for employees by considering that when it buys products and enters contracts with companies. When the state works with companies that don’t provide health insurance, it ends up paying for employees’ care anyway, when the workers turn to state-run programs such as Medi-Cal, he said.

Nurses also parlayed the summit into a political opportunity in their long-standing feud with the Republican governor, picketing outside the event and criticizing the administration’s new health care proposals as inadequate and timed to coincide with the November election.

Schwarzenegger on Monday proposed expanding California’s school-based health clinics, which offer services such as immunizations, counseling and health screenings, to 500 elementary schools from the current 147.

On Saturday, Schwarzenegger unveiled a prescription drug program that for the first time would require drug companies to give discounts to up to five million uninsured, low-income residents within five years or face state sanctions. In the past, he had only supported voluntary compliance plans.

Angelides released a five-point plan to address problems with the state’s health care system and said he would put more emphasis on the issue, rather than waiting until 100 days before the election.

In addition to the children’s and business proposals, Angelides said he would crack down on health management organizations to control premiums, sponsor a “real prescription drug benefit program that forces the drug companies to provide affordable prescription drugs” and allow Californians to buy prescription drugs on the Internet.

Consumer Watchdog
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