California's Christmas Gift to the Big Insurers

By Rose Ann DeMoro
The Huffington Post
Posted December 18, 2007 | 09:36 PM (EST)

Christmas came one week early for California insurers Monday.

In a present gift wrapped by the California Assembly with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger playing Santa, Assembly members passed a bill mislabeled as healthcare reform that will guarantee not health care but millions of new customers for the insurance industry, with California taxpayers paying the bill.

Need more evidence. Look at the list of supporters. They include industry giants, Kaiser Permanente, Health Net, PacifiCare, Blue Shield, Cigna, and Molina Health Care -- all among the biggest and most profitable health plans in the state.

It's not hard to see why they are on board.

Under the new bill, insurers would gain millions of new customers who are either forced to buy insurance under threat of having their wages garnished or facing a lien on their property -- or signed up into private insurance plans through a public pool funded with taxpayer or employer funded subsidies.

The bill passed Monday -- the product of a backroom deal between Schwarzenegger and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez -- even eliminated a provision from an earlier draft that would have provided exemptions to the forced insurance for Californians whose costs would exceed 6.5 percent of their income. Now those people will still have the mandate to buy insurance, though they will be eligible for full or partial public subsidies.

It's a disgraceful day when we have our elected leaders shaking down patients and consumers to swell the profits of an industry that became incredibly rich off the pain and suffering of patients who are routinely denied care when they need it most.

Nothing in this plan changes those deplorable practices. Insurers will continue to be able to block care even when recommended by a physician when they brand it as "experimental" or "not medically necessary." They will continue to be able to reject diagnostic procedures and access to specialists.

And, they will continue to be permitted to charge whatever they want. There are absolutely no restrictions on skyrocketing premiums, deductibles, or co-pays. The inevitable result will be more Californians facing bankruptcy for medical debt when they are forced to buy junk insurance they can't afford or self-rationing care even while they continue to pay the premiums.

Proponents of the bill praise the model of a similar Massachusetts law on which the California bill is based. Well, here's what's happening in Massachusetts today. State officials has discovered that since they failed to place any limits on insurance industry price gouging, the state will not be able to continue to afford the subsidies. So they are going to have to reduce payments to doctors and hospitals or sharply increase out-of-pocket costs for patients. That's progress?

This is not health care reform. It's a hijacking of the yearning of the public for genuine overhaul of our health care system. It's Schwarzenegger as a reverse Robin Hood, picking the pockets of patients and the public coffers for the biggest insurers in the land. And it will not stand.

California's State Senate may yet put the brakes on this plan -- not even scheduled to go into effect for four more years.

If California lawmakers want to actually accomplish something today on health care, they should look elsewhere. Thousands of California children face the imminent cutoff of coverage due to the President's veto of the children's health program. Concurrently, with California facing a $14 billion and growing budget deficit, Schwarzenegger is talking about big across the board cuts, including significant reductions in existing health programs.

Let's address these immediate crises -- and then move to enact genuine, healthcare reform such as a single payer, improved Medicare for all approach embodied in HR 676 in Congress and SB 840 in California -- rather than handing out any more presents to a wealthy industry that hardly needs the help.