Governor's Health Care Bill Faces Long Hearing

By: STEVE LAWRENCE Associated Press Writer
By: STEVE LAWRENCE Associated Press Writer

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's $14 billion health care expansion bill moves to the Senate, where it will face an extended hearing this week and the likelihood of a close vote in the Health Committee.

"This is not a slam dunk," said Sen. Leland Yee, a San Francisco Democrat who could end up being the swing vote on the measure.

The bill passed the Assembly in December, but the Senate put off
consideration to give the Legislature's budget analyst, Elizabeth Hill, time to report on the bill's costs.

The Health Committee will take it up Wednesday with a hearing that the chairwoman, Sen. Sheila Kuehl predicts will stretch from midmorning into the evening.

The panel will hear from Hill, take a look at health care experiments in other states, examine the bill piece by piece and take testimony from supporters, opponents and those on the fence looking for amendments.

"There are going to be a lot of witnesses," said Kuehl, D-Santa Monica.

The legislation would require employers to spend a certain percentage of their payrolls on health coverage for their workers, either by buying policies themselves or paying into a state health insurance pool.

Most Californians who couldn't obtain coverage through jobs or a
government program would be required to buy insurance on their own.

The plan would be funded through employer contributions, fees on
hospitals and an increase in cigarette taxes, in addition to premiums paid by consumers. Administration officials also are counting on getting additional federal funding to expand health care programs for the poor.

Supporters say the proposal would provide coverage for most of the 5.1 million Californians who lack health insurance and force insurers to take all customers instead of denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions.

"This is fundamental reform...," said Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles, who negotiated the legislation with Schwarzenegger and is carrying the bill.

"In the end, this is what gets us closest to universal health care. It's reform that's doable, practical, that has a shot."

But Kuehl and other critics say there are a number of problems with the bill, including lack of adequate insurance cost controls and no real minimum coverage requirements for employer-financed health insurance.

The outcome could depend on Yee, who says he is concerned about
adopting a massive new health care program at a time the state is
facing a $14.5 billion budget deficit over the next 18 months.

"It's rather difficult for me to vote for a health care plan that's going to cost $14 billion at the same time I'm looking at cutting $14 billion," he said.

"It's almost like telling someone who is in need of help, 'I'm going to give you food, but I'm going to take away your clothes.' At the end of the day, the person is still poor."

He says he's waiting to hear what Hill has to say before making up his mind.

"I think all of us are trying to find something that's going to be of help to the people of California and not in any of the out-years find that there are unintended consequences or that it's going to shift the burden of costs to workers unfairly," he said.

Also this week, committees in both houses will step up their consideration of cuts proposed by Schwarzenegger to erase $3.3
billion in red ink in the state budget that runs through June 30.

The Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee has hearings scheduled Tuesday and Thursday. The Assembly has a series of budget subcommittee hearings set for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Lawmakers are supposed to come up with a budget-balancing plan by Feb. 24 in a special session called by the governor.
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(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

AP-NY-01-20-08 1256EST

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