Nearly two hundred activists marched up State Street Thursday night loudly calling for the passage of a single-payer healthcare system in California so every resident-not just those who can afford to pay-has access to care. Meanwhile, 400 miles north in the State Legislature, lawmakers were finishing up approving two major healthcare measures, one in the Senate and one in the Assembly, which would substantially alter how health insurance is bought and sold here and extend coverage to most of the 6.5 million uninsured residents now relying on hospital emergency rooms.
Although the chances that the single-payer legislation favored by Thursday’s activists-State Senator Sheila Kuehl’s SB 840-will ever get a signature from the Governor are just shy of nil, there was a sense of possibility in the air anyway, as marchers reached the historic courthouse’s sunken gardens for speeches; their bill was approved in the State Senate the previous day. “This is not a partisan issue,” said Peter Conn, chair of Santa Barbara’s Chapter of Health Care for All (HCA), which organized and sponsored the rally. “Republicans get sick. Independents get sick. This is something we have to do for everybody or it’s not going to be there for anybody.”
HCA began working behind the scenes in Sacramento ten years ago to establish a model of healthcare here similar to Medicare, the federal health insurance program for the elderly and disabled. With one central payer and administrator and an extraneous role for private insurers, savings from the overhead and marketing of hundreds of health plans currently sold to Californians would be funneled into care, HCA officials said. (Analysts estimate insurance companies spend 30 cents of every premium dollar on overhead.) The rest of the funding would come from state and federal Medicaid spending, county health clinic funds and income and payroll taxes. Physicians and hospitals would remain in private hands.
Back at the rally-Corey Dubin, who contracted AIDS from his hemophilia medication over 25 years ago-told the crowd of his work with The Committee of Ten Thousand, an organization representing the interests of the ten thousand other hemophilia sufferers harmed by their medicine. (Only 2,000 of these patients still live.) He said it costs $250,000 a year just to keep him walking. “I tap out insurance plans the way other people go through shirts.” Former Santa Barbara City Councilmember Babatunde Folayemi said of his recent brush with cancer, “Without the blessing of health insurance, I would be financially devastated.” Former Assemblymember Hannah-Beth Jackson and First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal also spoke of the need for a simplified, universally accessible healthcare system in California.
Assemblymember Pedro Nava, a co-author of SB 840, conceded that if it lives to see the varnish of Schwarzenegger desk, the Governor is almost certain to veto it, just like last year. This is the fifth straight year Kuehl is carrying her single payer measure, which HCA advisors helped write. Now HCA is in the midst of a marathon year-long campaign to mobilize support for SB 840. Kuehl said each year it’s introduced, its support grows. “Bills that bring about significant change are seldom if ever adopted the first time you introduce them,” Nava said.
Nava also voted for AB 8, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez’s healthcare reform legislation which, among other modifications, would require employers to provide their workers health insurance or pay 7.5 percent of their aggregate payroll into a purchasing pool. It is one of the two healthcare measures approved on Thursday and is vociferously opposed by business groups. The other healthcare bill approved Thursday is Senate Pro Tem Don Perata’s SB 48, which is so similar to Nunez’s, the two will likely be combined, according to Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California. Wright said his organization is “cautiously optimistic” that something positive will happen this year with regard to healthcare.