A consumer advocacy group took on the chair of the Senate Health Committee at the end of last week, and it has stirred up Sacramento.
The ad was in reaction to the legislative decision to delay a vote on AB 52 by Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) and Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), the proposal to regulate health insurance rate increases.
According to Jamie Court of Consumer Watchdog, Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina) was responsible for a lot of the resistance to that measure. Watchdog ran a television advertisement that attacked Hernandez for financial ties to Kaiser Permanente and for how he treated one member of the public at a hearing.
Adverse reaction to the attack was quick — including a statement in support of Hernandez issued by bill co-author Feuer.
As chair of the Senate Health Committee, Hernandez voted for AB 52 — but according to Court, only after insisting that amendments be added that would eviscerate the bill. "There is no question that what he was proposing would gut this bill," Court said. "From the beginning, he insisted that actuaries be in charge, not regulators. And he insisted that the [California Health Benefit] Exchange be exempted."
The television ad said that Hernandez has an improper business connection with Kaiser Permanente, which opposed AB 52. Hernandez leases office space to Kaiser in Southern California, and Court said that Hernandez should be removed as chair of the committee because of it. The ad also aired an unflattering clip of a Hernandez comment during a public hearing, where he appeared to make light of one person's testimony.
According to Steven Maviglio of Forza Communications, the offensive tactic could come back to bite rate regulation advocates.
"Their grandstanding may have cost them the bill," Maviglio said. "This Keystone Kops strategy to attack the head of the health committee who actually voted for AB 52 and whose main bill this year was opposed by Kaiser, that is ridiculous. To make that charge is meritless."
Maviglio said that, if AB 52 became law, Consumer Watchdog would be in line to make money from the legislation. "They're just in it to make money for themselves. It's all about the money for them, it's not about policy."
Maviglio, a Democratic strategist who serves as media representative for Local Health Plans of California, said the release of the ad was timed in conjunction with a Consumer Watchdog fund-raising letter.
Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones and bill author Feuer both issued statements in support of Hernandez.
"For five years I have worked constructively with Senator Ed Hernandez on a range of issues," Feuer's release said. "In the course of our work together, I have found him to be honorable and committed to improving the lives of his constituents. While he and I currently have significant disagreements about key provisions of AB 52, I believe he has acted in good faith in his interactions with me on the bill."
Court said that the advertisement is being pulled this week, but not due to criticism.
"The response has been overwhelming that we continue it. But the guy who gave the public testimony, he asked us to pull it," Court said. "We respect patients' privacy, and we didn't want to make him uncomfortable."
Making Hernandez uncomfortable — or even doing the same to the bill authors — is another matter, Court said.
"In the Senate, we did not have the votes for this unless we gutted it," Court said. "It was dead as a doornail in the Senate. This is electroshock therapy. This bill is dead right now, and if I can bring a defibrillator to it now, I will."
If the votes still can't be found in the Senate during the next session, Court said, he plans to bring the issue to voters. He expects to see insurance rate regulation as a ballot measure in the November 2012 election.