Single-Payer Health Care Put on Hold in California as Leader Calls Bill “Woefully Incomplete”

A proposal to bring universal health care to California — replacing the private insurance market with a government-run single-payer plan — was abruptly put on hold Friday by Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, all but ensuring the nationally touted measure will not pass the Legislature this year.

Earlier this month, the state Senate voted to pass a $400 billion plan sponsored by the California Nurses Association, sending it to the Assembly. But the measure had few details — including how the state would raise the money to pay for it.

Rendon said he supported the concept of single-payer health care but called the bill “woefully incomplete.”

“Even senators who voted for SB 562 noted there are potentially fatal flaws in the bill,” he said in a statement issued late Friday afternoon, “including the fact it does not address many serious issues, such as financing, delivery of care, cost controls or the realities of needed action by the Trump administration and voters to make SB 562 a genuine piece of legislation.

“In light of this, I have decided SB 562 will remain in the Assembly Rules Committee until further notice.”

The single-payer proposal dominated May’s California Democratic Convention, with proponents — including RoseAnn DeMoro, head of the nurse’s union — promising to “primary” Democratic officials who didn’t get on board.

Champions of single-payer health care say that it will save Californians money, even though their taxes would increase, because they would no longer pay premiums or deductibles and the system would eliminate insurance-company profits and overhead. A study released last month, commissioned by the nurses, found that such a system could save Californians $37 billion annually on health care spending, even as it covered nearly 3 million people who are now uninsured.

Still, few political insiders expected the Assembly to pass the legislation this year, given its cost and the uncertainty surrounding the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans in Congress are trying to repeal.

“I think the surprise is that he didn’t kill it quietly through the suspense process,” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at UC San Diego, referring to the “suspense file” where appropriations committees often place costly bills and decide their fate all at once. “That’s where expensive bills go to die without anyone having to take a public stand against them.”

Leaders of the California Nurses Association were livid, calling the timing of the announcement “cowardly” and Rendon’s message “disingenuous.”

“Whose interest is he acting on behalf of if not the insurance industry and those who oppose having guaranteed health care?” asked Chuck Idelson, a spokesman for the association. “It’s really quite stunning.”

But another strong supporter of the bill, Laphonza Butler, president of the Service Employees International Union of California, offered a less harsh assessment. She said in a statement Friday that the bill “has opened up a crucial conversation about how California should proceed in the face of these federal attacks on our health care.”

“There is a lot of work to do on SB 562, and we remain eager to engage in that conversation,” she said.

The bill’s co-authors, Sens. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, and Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, expressed dismay — but did not blame, or even reference, the Assembly speaker in their joint statement.

“We are disappointed that the robust debate about health care for all that started in the California Senate will not continue in the Assembly this year,” they wrote. “This issue is not going away, and millions of Californians are counting on their elected leaders to protect the health of their families and communities.”

Senate Republican leader Patricia Bates, R-Laguna Niguel, issued a brief statement, saying only that California Republican senators agreed with Rendon that SB 562 is “woefully incomplete.”

Rendon’s announcement didn’t surprise Gerald Kominski, a health care policy expert at UCLA. He noted that the bill left many details unspecified and “did not have broad support among the coalition of groups that have advocated for single-payer in California in the past.”

Nevertheless, he said, “this bill has played an important role in elevating single-payer as an important option for California in light of the proposed carnage being offered by the U.S. Congress and the president.”

In his statement, Rendon said the bill is not “dead.”

Noting that this was the first of a two-year legislative session, Rendon said the legislation could benefit from a deeper discussion in the Senate, its house of origin.

“The Senate can use that time to fill the holes in SB 562,” he said, “and pass and send to the Assembly workable legislation that addresses financing, delivery of care and cost control.”

That line, UC San Diego’s Kousser said, reads as a “little bit of a slap” at the Senate.

“What the Senate did to the Assembly,” he said, “was send a politically popular but not perfectly worked out bill and made the Assembly do the dirty work of killing it.”

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