Universal health care for children is emerging as a major issue for lawmakers in California this year, with many legislators citing children's health care as a priority but disagreeing about possible solutions. A study released this week by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that the number of children without health insurance declined by more than 20% between 1997 and 2004, due in large part to increased enrollment in federal-state programs for moderate- and low-income children, such as Healthy Families in California. Funding for Healthy Families would increase if a November ballot measure to raise the state tobacco tax is approved, but critics of the initiative point out that as smoking rates decline, additional tobacco tax revenue will not prove sustainable. Meanwhile, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has said he will work to restore $23 million in state funding for county Healthy Kids programs. The Legislature cut the funds during budget negotiations.
In an opinion piece published in the San Francisco Chronicle this week, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez noted that Democrats in 2005 lobbied the governor to sign two bills -- AB 772 and AB 1199 -- that would have expanded access to care under Healthy Kids programs and increased funding for the county-based initiatives. However, Schwarzenegger vetoed both bills, writing in his veto message that the measures "would cost the state almost a half billion dollars a year without providing a funding source" at a time when the state faced a steep deficit.
Efforts to expand health coverage to groups other than children also gained momentum this week as supporters of a measure to create a state-run, single-payer health care system in California rallied at the Capitol, two days after the Assembly Appropriations Committee took up the bill. Schwarzenegger opposes such a system and said he would unveil an alternative proposal in January if he is re-elected.
Lawmakers this week also took on the State Compensation Insurance Fund -- which sells about 40% of the workers' compensation coverage in California Sen. Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo) introduced SB 1452 to authorize audits of State Fund. According to Auditor Elaine Howle, the audits could help document the effects of workers' compensation reforms enacted in 2004.
This week's Legislative Update also includes reports on:
- A bill that would require hospitals to maintain policies for providing discounted and charity care;
- Legislation promoting the establishment, retention or expansion of school health centers; and
- A measure that would have reimbursed pharmacies for costs associated with customers eligible for both Medi-Cal and Medicare.