Emotions Run High Over Senate Bill To Restructure Exchange Board

The Senate Committee on Health last week agreed to hold over a controversial bill to add two members to the Covered California exchange board. The decision to delay followed a lengthy and acrimonious debate that came a few words away from killing the bill.

SB 972 by Sen. Norma Torres (D-Pomona) was generated after several missteps by Covered California resulted in low Latino enrollment numbers during the first half of the initial enrollment period. The exchange problems included not having Spanish-language registration online for the first three months of open enrollment and not having enough Spanish-speaking call center workers. Those miscues stem, at least in part, from a lack of diversity on the exchange board, Torres said.

“The reason Latinos did not enroll in higher numbers as expected is because no one on the board of directors had the cultural or linguistic expertise to effectively market or reach out to this population,” Torres said. “There is a lack of diversity on the board of directors.”

Torres also said none of the board members have expertise in information technology, and so were unprepared for the website design problems the exchange experienced in the first half of its enrollment period.

“If you don’t understand the system,” she said, “how are you going to challenge it?”

One answer, she said, is to add more members to the five-person exchange board. That would broaden both expertise and diversity, and lead to a culturally richer, more knowledgeable, more effective health benefit exchange, she said.

Politically, though, there is a lot riding on the success of the health benefit exchange, as Torres learned firsthand.

No organization opposed the bill, but some health advocate groups voiced concerns with it.

Covered California “is still not perfect,” said Michelle Cabrera, director of research for Service Workers International Union California. “It can be better. … But [the board’s] willingness to do course corrections is something that really got our attention.”

The real opposition came from the senators on the Health Committee.

“I share the concern that the remedy doesn’t necessarily fix the problem,” Sen. Bill Monning (D-Carmel) said. “In its current form I won’t be supporting the bill.”

“I’m very uncomfortable about the expansion of the board,” added Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis).

Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose) said he was for the bill, but even he had a caveat.

“California has such diversity, and you can’t have that diversity [represented] in five board members,” Beall said. “You need a board that’s not an insider kind of board. Diversity on a board brings strength to the board.”

But, he said, “I took a deep breath when I saw that the governor gets to make the two [new] appointments,” he said. “That part makes me nervous.”

The most determined opposition came from Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina), chair of Senate Health.

“I don’t think this is the right approach,” Hernandez said. “But the author refused to take any of our staff’s recommendations. I have been willing to work with the author, but I have yet to hear from her. I am not prepared to vote for this bill.”

That confounded Torres.

“I am shocked and disappointed that you would look at me and say we have refused to work with your office,” Torres said, directly to Hernandez. “You know that did not happen.”

The lack of cooperation, she said, went the other way.

“Yes, the committee offered gut-and-amend, and that would completely change this bill,” Torres said, “to continue the status quo. That is not acceptable.”

Sen. Kevin De León (D-Los Angeles) stepped in to mediate.

“We have until next week, until next Wednesday. I will work with you and the chair to see if we can still find a middle ground,” De León said. “I think we can do it.”

“I don’t think I have much of a choice,” Torres said.

“You have a choice,” Hernandez said. “We can vote on the bill.”

Torres agreed to hold the bill.

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