Single-payer resolve

You’ve got to love the “new” Arnold Schwarzenegger. Where the old Arnold railed against teachers, unions and “girlie men” in the Legislature, Arnold 2.0 has made nice with Democrats, raised the minimum wage, cut greenhouse emissions, and placed universal health coverage at the top of the legislative agenda.

In many ways, this is a good thing. Arnold, in his first incarnation as governor, was driven by a Republican agenda that had more to do with undercutting the Democrats’ power base than solving state problems. By contrast, the new Arnold has moved forward on a set of issues near and dear to the hearts of many progressives, with health care next on the list. He is to be commended for his seeming willingness to change.

Unfortunately, in this case, Schwarzenegger’s direct involvement may do more harm than good. Rather than throw his support behind the best and most cost-efficient solution to our health-care woes, state Sen. Sheila Kuehl’s single-payer plan, Schwarzenegger has muddied the waters with his own flawed proposal. We’d love to see Arnold reinvent himself yet again and get behind the single-payer plan.

No one can doubt that health care is in dire need of an overhaul. Californians spent a staggering $186 billion on health care last year—roughly double the amount, per capita, of most industrialized nations—yet more than 6.5 million of us have no coverage at all.

Schwarzenegger’s proposal, which may already be moribund in the eyes of legislators, would make health insurance mandatory and generate $12 billion in new revenues, half of which would come from the federal government and half from fees levied on hospitals, doctors and businesses not currently providing insurance. The plan has some significant flaws: The increased federal funding on which the system depends is shaky, and there are too few measures to keep insurance companies from squeezing consumers. Just as problematic is the fact that Arnold’s proposal is now one of several before the Legislature. With the governor, Democrats in both the Senate and Assembly, and GOP leaders all touting their own proposals, consensus will be difficult.

That’s a shame, because the best plan of all is still Kuehl’s proposal, which passed both houses of the Legislature last year only to be vetoed by Schwarzenegger. The single-payer system slashes costs by pooling consumer resources into a single health-care trust, eliminating insurance companies and their profits from the equation, cutting administrative costs and giving participants enormous leverage to bargain with pharmaceutical companies. A comprehensive financial analysis of Kuehl’s plan shows it could save families $500-$3,000 per year, cut businesses’ health-care costs by 16 percent, and still provide coverage for the uninsured.

The single-payer plan always has faced stiff political opposition from insurance companies and Republicans, and it would take courage for Schwarzenegger to face down his old GOP allies and insurance-industry lobbyists to support a bill he’s previously vetoed. But if the “new” Arnold is for real, and if the governor is truly interested in solving the state’s health-care crisis, he’ll get behind Kuehl’s bill when she re-introduces it this year.