Single payer, new player

Will Jerry Brown veto universal health care like Arnold did?

Remember California’s universal health-care plan? That’s OK, Governor-elect Jerry Brown may not want you to.

Since cheerleading the idea hard during his 1992 presidential run (when he pointed to the Canadian health system as a model), Brown has quietly backed away from the idea of a state-run single-payer system in recent years.

Brown was vacationing last week and unavailable for comment, according to campaign spokesman Sterling Clifford. But SN&R wondered what Brown’s election, and the GOP takeover of Congress, will mean for the California Universal Healthcare Act, which will be before legislators next year for a fourth time.

“There’s nothing in the federal reform that stops the states from proceeding with a single-payer system,” noted state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, who has been the point man for single-payer health care in the state Legislature. Democratic lawmakers in California have consistently supported single-payer legislation, knowing that it would be vetoed every time by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But will Democrat Brown act any differently?

During a February speech before California Young Democrats, before he announced his gubernatorial candidacy, The Associated Press reported Brown as saying he would be hesitant to create a government-run health-care system in the state and instead supported the federal reform then moving through Congress—the same policy that a newly resurgent GOP is looking to dismantle.

The liberal political blog Calitics reported last November that Brown told California Democratic Party chairman John Burton that a single-payer system would never happen.

Sen. Leno certainly hopes that’s not the case. His Senate Bill 810, which he watched stall on the Assembly floor this past August, proposes to take the $200 billion-plus currently spent on health care in California and put it into a state-administered system that would cover every man, woman and child. No insurance companies required.

State legislators passed a virtually identical version of this bill twice before, only to watch Schwarzenegger wield his veto pen like Conan the Barbarian striking down Thulsa Doom.

“Gov. Schwarzenegger clearly did not understand the bill he was vetoing,” Leno said. “He called it ‘socialized medicine.’”

“Socialized medicine” is a pretty loaded characterization—Leno by contrast describes the bill as a publicly funded, privately administered program akin to Medicare—but that kind of rhetoric worked in stripping the so-called public option from the federal overhaul of health care earlier this year.

“Ours is an education challenge,” Leno conceded, but he believes the people want a simplified system, lower premiums and coverage for their 10 million uninsured neighbors.

“More and more people are suffering as the insurance industry makes even greater profits,” he said. “We have every intention of introducing it in the new session.”

The earliest that can happen is next month.

But in August, the Senate Appropriations Committee raised questions about its financing and federal funding assumptions. And in 2007, the Legislative Analyst’s Office identified annual general fund shortfalls in the range of $40 billion due to a mismatch between the costs of the single-payer system and the revenues it would rely on.

With all that, Sacramento State economist Rob Wassmer is betting our newly elected governor chooses to punt the single-payer plan rather than run it up the field.

“In his first year, I think he’ll be a lot more conservative than people think he’ll be,” Wassmer said, adding that he could imagine Brown vetoing the bill “until we get our fiscal house in order.”

Whether the legislation can actually perform as advertised will almost be beside the point, speculated Wassmer, who hadn’t read the bill. He predicted the insurance companies would sell this as “super-duper Obamacare.”

Hey, it’s worked once already.