Governor Inks Support for Some Key Health Bills, Nixes Others

Gov. Jerry Brown signs several bills that aim to support women and children during an event held by the California Legislative Women’s Caucus in Sacramento on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017. (Ana Ibarra/California Healthline)

Wielding his pen, Gov. Jerry Brown has reinforced the Affordable Care Act, stood up to pharmaceutical companies and boosted testing for childhood lead poisoning.

Facing a Sunday deadline to approve or reject measures passed by the legislature this year, Brown weighed in on some key health care bills, including measures to protect Californians who buy insurance for themselves.

One law will ensure that consumers have three months to shop for health plans in future years, rebuffing a move by the Trump administration that cuts that time in half. Another law will help people keep their health care providers if insurers cancel their policy.

Health consumer advocates said Brown’s signatures on those and other bills will help maintain California’s role as a leader in protecting health care coverage in the face of federal threats. Last week, for instance, President Donald Trump ended an important Obamacare health insurance subsidy for consumers — a move that could destabilize insurance markets across the country.

Californians will stay “ahead of the curve, and ahead of the federal threats” because of lawmakers’ actions this year, said Betsy Imholz, director of special projects at Consumers Union in San Francisco.

The governor’s health care actions and rhetoric have been particularly impassioned lately, especially in response to federal moves on health care policy, Imholz said.

“There’s a lot to be fiery about these days, and he’s using his bully pulpit well,” she said.

But Brown didn’t sign off on everything the legislature sent to his desk. He used his veto pen to kill some health care legislation, including a proposed statewide ban on smoking at state beaches and parks.

Health Care Bills Signed By The Governor

Open Enrollment

By codifying AB 156, by Assemblyman Jim Wood (D-Healdsburg), Brown agreed that Californians who buy insurance for themselves should continue to have a three-month open enrollment period, during which they can choose or switch health plans. The law exempts the Golden State from a Trump administration rule that shortens the sign-up period to 45 days, and applies to people who purchase individual market plans for 2019 and beyond. Californians already are assured a three-month open-enrollment period — Nov. 1 to Jan. 31 — for 2018 coverage.

Keeping Your Doctors

Brown signed off on a measure to allow some seriously ill patients to continue seeing their current providers for a limited time if their insurer discontinues their plan. The bill, SB 133, was introduced by Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina) in response to the impending departures of Anthem Blue Cross and Cigna from portions of California’s individual insurance market next year. The law will continue an eligible patient’s coverage even if her doctors don’t contract with the new health plan, so long as the doctors are willing to accept the plan’s reimbursement rates.

Prescription Drug Costs

The governor signed a hotly contested bill by Hernandez that will require drugmakers to report and explain big price hikes. SB 17 directs pharmaceutical companies to notify state agencies and insurers 60 days in advance if they plan to raise prices more than 16 percent over two years on drugs with a wholesale cost of at least $40.

The governor also approved AB 265 by Wood, which will ban pharmaceutical companies from giving consumers coupons for brand-name drugs when a generic equivalent is available, with some exceptions.

Childhood Lead Poisoning

Brown signed AB 1316 by Assemblyman Bill Quirk (D-Hayward), which calls for all California kids to be evaluated by their doctor for lead poisoning, starting next year. Currently, children who receive government assistance such as Medi-Cal must be screened for lead, but that requirement doesn’t extend to other children. Doctors will also have to consider new factors when evaluating children, such as proximity to potential sources of lead contamination. A report published last month by the Environmental Working Group showed that one-third of infants who were at risk for lead poisoning had not been tested. “The current screening process is outdated and leaves many children vulnerable to lead poisoning,” Quirk said in a statement.

Unapproved Stem Cell Treatments

Brown approved a bill that requires doctors to warn their patients before they undergo unapproved stem cell therapies. SB 512, also by Hernandez, says health care providers who offer such treatments must disclose to patients that the treatments have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and urge them “to consult with your primary care physician prior to undergoing a stem cell therapy.” Health care providers may face fines for noncompliance.

Health Care Bills Vetoed By The Governor

Valley Fever

Brown nixed AB 1279, which would have required the state Department of Public Health to develop additional outreach programs to educate people about Valley Fever, an infection caused by inhaling fungal spores often found in soil. The measure, by Assemblyman Rudy Salas (D-Bakersfield), had been watered down from its original form by the time it hit the governor’s desk. The original language called for a $2 million investment in research on the disease, which is common in dry regions, like Salas’ district. In his veto message, Brown said the department already provides fact sheets, brochures and other materials to educate the public about Valley Fever.

 Smoking At State Parks

Once again, Brown vetoed legislation that would have banned smoking at state beaches and parks. AB 725, by Assemblyman Marc Levine (D-San Rafael), would have established smoking areas at some parks and beaches. People caught smoking outside those designated spaces would have faced a $50 fine. A stricter bill by Sen. Steve Glazer (D-Orinda), SB 386, proposed a fine of up to $100. Lawmakers had previously sent similar legislation to Brown, but so far they have not won him over. In his veto message, Brown said a ban would be an overreach of government power. “If people can’t smoke even on a deserted beach, where can they?” he asked.

Reproductive Bias

A bill that would have prohibited institutions with religious affiliations from firing employees because of their reproductive choices, such as having abortions, failed to make it past the governor’s desk. AB 569, by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego), would have barred religion-based employers such as a Christian school, from requiring workers to sign a code of conduct that waived their reproductive health rights. In his veto message, Brown said that “these types of claims should remain within the jurisdiction of the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.”

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