Mayors back universal health care

City leaders say health care needs repair

With Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s health-insurance plan fizzling out earlier this year, local governments are still wrestling with the exploding costs of health insurance. Just ask Sue Greenwald, the mayor of Davis.

“From a mayor’s point of view, this issue is uniquely pressing. Cities across the nation are facing ruinous unfunded liabilities for our retiree health benefits,” said Greenwald.

Those costs take away money cities can spend on cops and firefighters, street repairs and other city services.

Which is why Greenwald supports “single payer” health care, guaranteed health coverage for all citizens and administered by the government.

The cause of single-payer health care got a big boost on June 23, when mayors from across the United States, and the Sacramento region, voted to endorse the National Health Insurance Act.

The vote came during the U.S. Conference of Mayors held in Miami, Florida, late last month. The act, also known as House Resolution 676, was authored by Rep. John Conyers, the 21-term Democrat from Michigan. It would expand Medicare, begun in the 1960s and now covering 44 million Americans, to every U.S. resident. The bill has 90 co-sponsors now, 14 of whom represent California, where one of every eight Americans live.

For West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon, supporting the resolution was a no-brainer. “I voted for the resolution. It was not a matter of any significant debate, since the nation’s mayors have previously endorsed the basic outline of the Conyers’ approach.”

Sacramento Mayor Heather Fargo attended the conference, but left before the vote in order to return to Sacramento for the June 24 city council meeting. But spokeswoman Sue O’Brien said Fargo is in favor of the single-payer approach to health insurance and is “absolutely” in support of the resolution.

The Chicago-based Physicians for a National Health Program authored the mayors’ resolution. “This is the first time that a non-health-care-related group has taken such a strong stand,” according to retired dentist David Prensky, who helped push the resolution on PNHP’s behalf.

The problem of inadequate health coverage affects all cities. According to a recent report from The Commonwealth Fund: “75 million adults—42 percent of the under-65 population—had either no insurance or inadequate insurance in 2007, up from 35 percent in 2003.”

H.R. 676 “would guarantee everyone care for all medically necessary services, contain costs by slashing the administrative waste and bureaucracy associated with the private insurance industry and assure patients their choice of doctor and hospital,” according to a PNHP statement.

Linda Budge, the mayor of Rancho Cordova, attended the Miami conference but, like Mayor Fargo, did not vote on the health-insurance resolution. Asked about its significance, she said, “It is a good example of mayors across the United States pulling together in one location to discuss issues of common concern to all our various communities.”

Steve Miller, the mayor of Citrus Heights, who did not travel to the Florida conference, said that Citrus Heights has not taken an official position on Conyers’ bill. Miller frets about increasing taxes to pay for H.R. 676. Currently, payroll taxes, beneficiaries’ premiums and Treasury revenues are the main sources of financing for Medicare’s hospital, medical and pharmaceutical insurance.

“I’m for universal health care,” Miller said. However, he is “not totally confident in the ability of the federal government to find a solution” to the nation’s health-insurance problems.

Miller favors solutions which highlight private initiative. For instance, he supports health savings accounts as a way to put more money in consumers’ hands rather than those of health insurers. President Bush signed HSAs into law as part of a Medicare bill in December 2003, “to help individuals save for future qualified medical and retiree health expenses on a tax-free basis,” according to the U.S. Treasury’s Web site.

With living costs rising faster than wages, the efficiency of HSAs is unclear. The U.S. rate of personal saving was 0.7 percent on average during the past year, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Conyers’ H.R. 676 is similar to the proposal of Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate. His plan would “create a publicly run Medicare-type plan that any employer or individual can buy into,” said Dean Baker, author, economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. The plan of Obama’s rival, Sen. John McCain, would end the tax advantage employers have to provide health insurance for employees now and replace that with tax credits for individuals and their families.