Health Care Reform Eyes on California

As the CEO of the Small Business Majority, an advocacy group for small businesses in California, John Arensmeyer has traveled the state recently on a “listening tour” — and he’s been heartened by what he’s heard.

“We’re certainly hearing a lot of questions about health care reform,” Arensmeyer said, “but there is universal agreement across the board as to the whole concept of setting up the [California health benefits] exchange.”

The health benefits exchange is the centerpiece of health care reform in California, he said. Since California is the first to pass legislation to create an exchange in response to the national health care reform law, the rest of the nation is paying close attention to it, he said.

“We found that controlling cost is the most important thing to people, and the exchange is key to making it affordable,” he said. “I do think the rest of the country is looking to California, in terms of the ideas and strategies we’re using.”

The state Legislature passed dozens of health care-related bills that are now on the governor’s desk, including the two bills to set up the state health benefits exchange. Schwarzenegger has until the end of the month to sign or veto them.

A report on California’s health care reform legislation was released yesterday by Health Access California. According to the group’s executive director, Anthony Wright, not only does the state’s proposed legislation dovetail with new federal rules, but Wright said that California’s health care situation itself is tailor-made for these regulations.

“California has one of the highest rates of un-insurance in the country [fifth in the nation, according to a study released last month by UCLA researchers]. It has one of highest rates of employers not offering coverage to employees and it has one of highest numbers of low-rate workers,” Wright said.

“So these health reform changes particularly help in those areas where California is weakest,” he said.

The exchange isn’t due to start operating until 2014, but according to Betsy Imholz of Consumers Union, the state needs that time to set it up properly.

She pointed to the successful implementation of an exchange in Massachusetts, which took hold before the national reform law was passed.

“The most important thing they did in Massachusetts,” Imholz said, “was to have people become more familiar with it.” She said that the political infighting that dogged national reform didn’t happen to such a large degree in Massachusetts and doesn’t need to happen in California.

“Once people know what it is, I think they’ll be hungry for it,” she said. “I think we can get past political partisanship if we can get information out there.”

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