Fight Over Single-Payer Health Care in California Gets Really Ugly
California Nurses Association

Fight Over Single-Payer Health Care in California Gets Really Ugly

You have to feel a little sorry for Anthony Rendon. It's been two weeks since the speaker of the State Assembly shelved SB 562, a bill aspiring to set up a single-payer, universal health care system in California, and the poor guy is still getting apoplectic Facebook comments like: "What a fucking scumbag. You're going to let people die for money. Go to hell."

Or: "I hope you fear for your life right now."

Or this gem, posted on the 4th of July: 

Fight Over Single-Payer Health Care in California Gets Really Ugly
Facebook

Actually, that one might be a joke. We're not sure. Point is, people are pissed as hell that California isn't a socialist utopia already, and they are out for blood. Or at least they want to seem like they're out for blood. In a written statement, Rendon said he's received death threats:

There’s been a variety of reactions to my decision to hold SB 562, from supportive to quite negative. Even death threats to me and members of my family. I’m a grown-up in politics, so those are things I can handle.

What does bother me most are comments like these: ‘That was our last hope for our uninsurable son who is facing a heart transplant. He will be uninsurable once TrumpCare passes….You just killed my son.’

It's a curious moment in health care politics. California has fared well under Obamacare. The uninsured rate is at a historic low of 7.4 percent. Should Republicans succeed in repealing the Affordable Care Act, 6 million to 8 million Californians stand to lose their insurance. But that's far from a done deal. In the meantime, the same sort of language used to fight Republicans — equating the taking away of health care coverage to murder — is now being applied to Rendon.

Leading the charge is the California Nurses Association, which has stirred social media outrage against Rendon, spreading around an image of the California bear being stabbed in the back with a butcher knife that says "Rendon." On Monday, the organization unfurled a banner in the Capitol building that read "Inaction = Death," and this week it started running radio advertisements in the Los Angeles area accusing Rendon of "holding our health care hostage.”

Eric Bauman, chair of the State Democratic Party, supports moving California to a single-payer system but doesn't think the bill should be rushed through the Legislature. He says the Nurses Association's campaign "lessens our ability to come together to solve the greatest moral imperative of our day — making sure every American has health care."

"I certainly don’t think that the California Nurses Association orchestrated physical threats against anyone," Bauman says. "But when you foment anger in people, people react angrily. When you use graphics that show the speaker of the Assembly putting a knife in the back of the California bear, people read violence into that, especially when they’re already frustrated that they don’t have good health care."

If any state has the ability to put together a workable single-payer health care system, it's California, which, if it were a country, would have the sixth largest economy in the world. The state also has a two-thirds Democratic supermajority in the Legislature. Sure, single-payer health care would cost a lot of money. But businesses would save money by not having to provide their employees with health insurance.

But even the legislative backers of the hastily drawn-up SB 562 admit the bill wasn't ready for primetime. The ambitious single-payer proposal would have cost around $400 billion, about half of which would have had to come from new sources of revenue. That's a lot of money, considering the entire state budget is around $125 billion. The proposal also likely would be contingent on getting a special waiver from the Trump administration, allowing the state to allocate Medicare and Medicaid money to the new system.

"There was clearly work to do on the bill," says Michael Soller, spokesman for one of the bill's authors, state Sen. Ricardo Lara. "We don’t want to pretend it was fully fleshed out. But we thought that the legislative process in the Assembly was the opportunity to keep that process going."

Rendon and his defenders say the Senate, in effect, passed a vague, aspirational bill with no funding mechanism, hoping the Assembly would just sort of figure things out. Actually, that's the generous interpretation. The cynical interpretation is that members of the Senate wanted to make themselves look good by passing the bill, knowing full well it would make the state Assembly look bad when it failed to pass $200 billion worth of tax increases — which it probably can't even do without a ballot measure, thanks to something called the Gann limit, which restricts the Legislature's ability to increase the size of the budget without going to the voters first.

"It is shameful how the proponents of SB 562 have provided false hope to people who are suffering," Rendon said in his statement. "SB 562 is more a statement of principles than a genuine bill that actually does anything to create a single-payer health care system in California that covers everyone."

Don Nielsen, director of governmental relations for the California Nurses Association, says the Gann limit wouldn't have necessarily forced the bill to be passed via ballot measure — and at any rate, this was one of many questions that would have been worked out in the Assembly had Rendon not shelved the bill, an act that Nielsen calls "cowardly."

"We consider what he did to be deplorable and shocking and anti-democratic," Nielsen says. "Virtually every bill that gets filed gets amended, or at least has lots of questions. That’s the democratic process. That’s why it goes through multiple houses and multiple committees. Why you would want to cut that process off is suspect."

Nielsen denies the accusation that his group has fomented violence.

"We don’t condone violence or suggestions of violence," Nielson says. "Nurses don’t do that. Nurses save lives."

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