Legislators Debate Health Care Reform Plans

Both houses of the State Legislature in Sacramento approved health care reform bills Thursday. The votes represented a big step toward providing health coverage to nearly 70% of Californians. But KPCC's State Capitol reporter Julie Small says it's sure not the last step.

Julie Small: Assembly Bill 8 and Senate Bill 48 cover a lot of the same ground. They provide health care insurance to all children and all working adults in California – regardless of their legal status. Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles) told his colleagues it was the right thing to do.

Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez: Health care in California currently is a privilege that those who can afford to have it, have. But we're going to take it further than that. We're going to say to all Californians that from this point forward health care is a right afforded to everyone in this state. I ask for your "aye" vote.

Small: Both the Assembly and Senate bills require most employers to spend 7.5% of their payroll on employee health care, or pool that money into a state fund to buy affordable health care policies. Even though Democratic leaders had the "yes" vote in the bag, legislators debated the bills' merits for over an hour. Democrats wanted a chance to laud the achievement. Some Republicans wanted to object for the record. Assemblyman Roger Niello (D-Sacramento) said he liked Speaker Nuñez, but hated his bill.

Assemblyman Roger Niello: How do I hate his bill? Let me count the ways. I don't have the time.

Small: Niello – who ran auto dealerships for 25 years – said the mandate on employers to pay for health care misses the point.

Niello: The presumption is that employers that don't offer it can and they're just stingy. They're miserly. They want to take advantage of their employees. And as a business person, I'm here to tell you that could not be farther than the truth.

Small: Niello said many employers can't afford to provide health care coverage because costs are rising too quickly. He said the health care bills introduced by Assembly Republicans offered ways to cut costs with tax breaks and more low-cost health clinics. But only one of those bills passed.

The Senate health care measure differs from the Assembly plan on one major point: It requires individual Californians to buy health insurance. That's actually closer to what Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed months ago. He wants to spread the costs of universal health care among employers, employees, and providers.

Now that the Assembly and Senate have moved their bills forward, lawmakers have to come up with a single plan that both houses and the Governor will approve.