Influential coalition backs universal health care;

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Players Urge Compromise, Quick Action

The San Jose Mercury News (California)

SACRAMENTO, CA — Several powerful players in California’s medical community announced they had formed a coalition Tuesday to urge lawmakers and the governor to reach agreement on a universal health care system.

“We want to make sure that something gets done this legislative session,” said Karen Nikos, a spokeswoman for the California Medical Association. “The only way that can happen is if a whole group of stakeholders work together.”

The association, which represents more than 34,000 physicians, said it was joining with the Service Employees International Union, which represents about 900,000 health care workers nationwide, the Kaiser Permanente medical system, the Catholic Healthcare West hospital chain and two major health insurers, Blue Shield of California and Health Net.

Formation of the coalition comes as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders attempt to put together a plan to cover all or part of the approximately 6.5 million Californians who lack health insurance.

Schwarzenegger has proposed a plan under which all Californians would have to obtain health coverage, either on their own, through their employers or, for low-income residents, through a government program. Employers with at least 10 employees would have to buy coverage for their workers or pay into a state fund.

Legislative Democrats and Senate Republicans have proposed rival plans that vary in the number of uninsured Californians they would cover.

Nikos said the coalition wasn’t supporting any one plan but wanted to see all Californians with health insurance.

“We’re just saying we need to work on getting something done and compromise so every patient can benefit,” she said.

But the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a Santa Monica-based consumer group, suggested that the motive of at least some of the coalition’s members was to prevent state regulation of health insurance rates.

“Any universal reform that includes private insurers must require them to justify current rates and proposed premium charges,” the foundation said in a letter to Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles, and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland.

“California needs an effective regulatory review like that required of auto and property/ casualty insurers….”

The foundation contends that a 15 percent limit on overhead for health care organizations in Schwarzenegger’s plan was not enough to hold down costs.

David Olson, a spokesman for Health Net, said the insurer joined the coalition because it supported “the governor’s effort to achieve health care reform. We think it’s necessary and it’s time and we’re prepared to do our part.”

But he questioned whether rate-regulation would work.

“Our position is the market is the best regulator of prices,” he said.

David Seldin, communications director for Blue Shield, said universal coverage would help hold down health care expenses by eliminating costs created when uninsured patients seek treatment in emergency rooms instead of a physician’s office.

Schwarzenegger stressed the cost-saving potential Tuesday of the preventive medicine proposals in his plan. They include requiring health plans to offer premium reductions and other incentives to customers who stop smoking, lose weight or take certain other steps to protect their health.

During a news conference outside the Capitol, he said prevention was “the least expensive and actually the most effective way to cut down health care costs.”

Schwarzenegger, still using a crutch after breaking his right leg in a December skiing accident, was joined by representatives of companies and groups supporting the preventive medicine portions of his plan.

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