SACRAMENTO — Consumer-rights activist Ralph Nader scolded Gov. Gray Davis on Monday for providing “the antithesis of leadership” on health care, contending the governor’s judgment has been clouded by campaign donations from HMOs.
Nader, based in Washington, D.C., injected himself into California’s increasingly acrimonious health-care debate on the eve of a meeting between Davis, lawmakers and others on HMO legislation.
Dozens of managed-care bills are moving through the Legislature, but Davis has signaled that he wants to sign just a handful. The governor has sought to slow down or kill some bills, legislative leaders said last week in a letter to fellow lawmakers. They did not identify which ones.
The stakes are high. More than 14 million Californians are in HMOs, and the number without insurance has swollen to 7 million.
Davis has not said which proposals he favors. Special-interest groups on both sides are furiously trying to get bills passed or rejected, including legislation that would let consumers sue health maintenance organizations over treatment decisions.
In a sharply worded letter to Davis dated Monday, Nader and Harvey Rosenfield, head of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, told him that consumer advocates seeking an overhaul of HMO regulation have long waited for a Democrat in the governor’s office.
Davis, elected in November, is the state’s first Democratic governor in 16 years.
“Now that you have reached your long-sought and hard-fought destination, what do you intend to do there?” Nader and Rosenfield asked, citing “long-neglected health, safety and consumer protection issues.”
“The answer, at best deeply disappointing, seems to be nothing at all,” they wrote.
Nader and Rosenfield praised Davis for leadership as an assemblyman, state controller and lieutenant governor, but said that leadership “has seemingly evaporated amidst disturbing reports of aggressive fund-raising from interest groups on all sides of these issues.”
The California Association of Health Plans, which represents HMOs, hosted a fund-raiser for Davis earlier this month that raised at least $100,000.
“Trying to appease every corporate constituency instead of standing up for defenseless Californians is the antithesis of leadership,” Nader and Rosenfield wrote.
Davis spokesman Michael Bustamante said the contributions had not swayed Davis’ view on health-care bills.
“The governor is very serious about enacting real reforms that mean something for California consumers,” Bustamante said.
Davis planned to meet Tuesday in San Francisco with a panel of lawmakers and others to discuss managed-care legislation. It is the group’s second meeting.
Bustamante said about seven lawmakers were scheduled to attend the closed, invitation-only session. Others, he said, were likely to attend, but he was unable to identify them. Walter Zelman, president of the California Association of Health Plans, planned to attend, association spokesman Cory Black said.
Bustamante characterized the meeting Tuesday as a continuation of one Davis convened July 12 with lawmakers to pare down the “unmanageable 70-plus bills” circulating in the Legislature.
“It’s too important to take a shotgun approach,” Bustamante said. Bustamante said the governor plans to meet with a range of interest groups, and has gathered comment from them through a previous task force, he said.
Nader and Rosenfield complained that Davis is meeting out of public view with HMO executives and lawmakers, “with no representation for patients, consumers or even nurses or doctors.”
They derided the meetings as a “ruse” similar to a managed-care task force convened, and ultimately ignored, by his predecessor, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson.
Members of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights plan to protest outside Davis’ meeting in San Francisco. The meeting is closed to the public and press, and Bustamante refused to say what time it was to begin.
The demonstrators plan to distribute mock milk cartons with the governor’s image printed on them, parodying Davis’ own initiative more than a decade ago that placed missing children’s faces on the cartons.
Before the meeting, Davis is to address the American Trial Lawyers Association. Trial lawyers contributed heavily to Davis’ campaign last year; Like Nader, they seek to topple existing legal barriers that prevent consumers from suing insurance companies.