Health Care High on Sacramento Agenda

State lawmakers are considering competing bills that would radically reform health care coverage in California. Different plans attack universal coverage and spiraling health care costs in different ways. But they share one thing: They are all getting serious consideration, and one of those bills will almost certainly pass. KPCC's Julie Small reports.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger: In the past, health care reform was always dead on arrival. But this year I can feel something different in the air.

Julie Small: Whatever your political beliefs, the Governor of California gets some credit for using his star power to shine a bright light on health care. He started with the "State of the State" address in January.

Schwarzenegger: I can feel the energy, the desire, the momentum for action. People really want to get this done. You can feel that the time is right. As a matter of fact, both leaders told me we will get it done. My Republican friends said we will get it done. Ladies and gentleman, we will get it done!

Small: Schwarzenegger's kept the pace up, holding town hall meetings from San Diego to Eureka. Senator Sheila Keuhl gives the Governor credit for that. Even though the Los Angeles Democrat carried the torch for state-sponsored universal health care long before Schwarzenegger arrived. Even though he vetoed the health care reform bill she authored last year.

Senator Sheila Kuehl: For the first time in history, a single-payer health care bill made it to a governor's desk here in California. The Governor vetoed it. He vetoed universal health care even though he says that's what he wants. But its passage called to his attention the importance of this.

Small: Senator Kuehl called some attention to her bill this week when she invited filmmaker Michael Moore to testify at the State Capitol about his new documentary, "Sicko." It's an indictment of health care in America. Moore also headlined a health care rally of hundreds of California nurses on the steps of the State Capitol.

Michael Moore (speaking at rally): I want to encourage you to be the state to say "Free universal health care for everyone! Remove profit from the system and regulate the pharmaceutical companies!" Thank you for being here. Thank you for the work you do. And let's win this fight! Let's win this fight! Let's win this fight!

Small: They may be fighting separate battles for separate constituents, but Kuehl and Schwarzenegger are the only two lawmakers calling for plans that cover all Californians, including the undocumented. And the plans they support take a bite out of the insurance companies. Schwarzenegger says he'll put an end to scenarios like this:

Schwarzenegger: Let's say you want to go and get coverage now and the insurance company says, "This is a nice, attractive young lady and it looks like she's going to get married or maybe is married and wants to have kids. That could be very expensive for us as an insurance company. We don't want to insure her."

Small: Schwarzenegger's plan would force insurance companies to spend $.85 of every premium dollar on direct patient care. But Sheila Kuehl says the insurers can't be reformed.

Kuehl: We have to force insurance companies to take patients. We have to force insurance companies to cover basic services. We have to ban them from discriminating against people who took a small drug for their allergy years ago. We even have to force them to spend an adequate amount on direct medical care. But at the end, no matter how many levers we pull, there'll always be another problem.

Small: If the legislature passes Senator Kuehl's universal health care bill again this year, the Governor says he'll veto it again. He doesn't like the state shouldering the costs. He wants to split the bill with individuals, employers, health care providers, and the state. Republicans have threatened to reject any budget with a health care plan that covers illegal immigrants. But Schwarzenegger thinks that disagreement can get worked out.

Schwarzenegger: I find it fascinating for the first time in history in California that both parties are having proposals on the table and are saying, "Yes, we have a broken health care system and it needs to be fixed."

Small: The Governor says it's inexcusable that a "nation state" like California, with the seventh largest economy in the world, has six-and-a-half million residents without health insurance. An increasing number of Californians agree. Now we'll see if the legislature can do the same.