Chico and the Man

Schwarzenegger heads north to tout his vast agenda, but folks just wanna talk health care

Flanked by cabinet secretaries from the Environmental Protection Agency and departments of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Food and Agriculture and other agencies, and touting his administration’s “aggressive agenda” to address a wide variety of issues confronting California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger descended on Chico Monday morning for a town-hall meeting sponsored by AARP, the California state PTA and the Chico Chamber of Commerce.

Naturally, the issue on the minds of most people in the audience had nothing to do with the environment, prisons, education, food safety or commerce—although it did touch on something near and dear to AARP members.

“We were there to challenge the governor’s position on health care” is how Jeanne Ertle summed up her group’s role at the gabfest. Ertle is a committee member of Chico’s OneCareNow campaign for universal health insurance, and while she and her cohorts were not allowed inside the invitation-only event at Little Chico Creek Elementary School, they made their presence known outside the entrance by handing guests information on health-care legislation they endorsed and Schwarzenegger vetoed.

It is an old axiom of politics: Be careful what you make your most ambitious goal in office, lest you get asked exclusively about it once you drag a bunch of your cabinet secretaries up to Chico to talk about everything else.

So, after delivering a short introduction to his secretaries’ overviews of what they are doing to return the luster to the Golden State, Schwarzenegger found himself victimized by his own months-long rallying cry to insure every Californian.

After sitting politely through the presentation—which did include an update on the administration’s health-care-reform strategy from Health and Human Services Agency Secretary Kim Belshé—attendees seemed uneasy about the governor’s proposed solution. Indeed, more than half the questions posed by the audience related to health care.

William Todd-Mancillas, a CSU Chico communications studies professor, asked Schwarzenegger what his objections were to Senate Bill 840, also known as the California Universal Health Care Act, which aimed to create a single-payer health-insurance system in California that all residents would be eligible for and covered under. Among the legislation advocated by OneCareNow, SB 840 was introduced by state Senator Sheila Kuehl in February but later vetoed by Schwarzenegger.

But instead of responding directly to Todd-Mancillas’ straightforward question, the governor turned it around, asking the professor what he thought the governor’s objections were to the bill.

“I would say that it costs small businesses too much money,” Todd-Mancillas answered.

Schwarzenegger agreed, saying he wants to protect small business. Then he quickly moved on to the next question.

Hasta la vista, baby!

Todd-Mancillas was stunned, saying later that he was “disappointed” that he did not receive a “more-informed” answer from Schwarzenegger.

The professor said he became interested in the health-care issue after a “really scary” diagnosis of prostate cancer last year. He read about the governor’s planned visit in the local Chico newspaper’s Sunday edition and managed to get on the guest list.

OneCareNow members were not so lucky—or maybe they are not readers—but having Todd-Mancillas carry their water on SB 840 did prove the effectiveness of their vigil outside the school gates.

Not that it left Ertle pleased. She was most disturbed by AARP’s participation. While the old-fogies rights’ organization claims nonprofit status, Ertle noted it actually has a stake in the health-care issue, receiving a significant amount of revenue from insurance sales through its business enterprises, including AARP Health Care Options.

Meanwhile, while Schwarzenegger has demonstrated he’s no fan of single payer, he did prove in his remarks before the audience question-and-answer session that he’s got the “We Gotta Do Something About Healthcare” script down pat. California may have “great hospitals and great doctors,” the governor said, but the “system itself is failing people.” He mentioned our 6.5 million uninsured residents—nearly 20 percent of the state’s total population. He cited overcrowded emergency rooms and the “hidden tax” paid by the insured to cover the skyrocketing medical costs of the uninsured.

His solution? Certainly not SB 840, but Schwarzenegger’s own plan. Belshé expounded on it, claiming that it addresses prevention and wellness, coverage and affordability.

“Everyone benefits and everyone contributes,” she boasted.

Great. Let’s put it to a vote.

Alas, we can’t. Unlike SB 840, Schwarzenegger’s plan has yet to be written.