California Democrats revive push for sweeping first-in-the-nation universal health care system

Adam Beam
The Associated Press

SACRAMENTO — Democrats in the California Legislature on Thursday unveiled a sweeping plan for what could be the nation’s first universal health care system providing health services to every resident — prompting strong opposition from doctors and health insurers overtax increases for businesses and individuals that would pay for the plan and only if voters approved the tax hikes.

California Assemblyman Ash Kalra, a Democrat from San Jose and chair of the Committee on Labor and Employment, speaks at a rally Aug. 28, 2019, in Sacramento.

State Assemblyman Ash Kalra, a Democrat from San Jose, introduced a bill last year to create a universal health care system in California. But the bill stalled in part because it did not include a way to pay for it.

Kalra on Thursday revealed a second bill that would amend the state Constitution to raise taxes on some businesses and individuals. The personal income tax increase would only apply to people who earn about $150,000 per year or more. That bill would require a two-thirds vote of both houses of the Legislature and must be approved by voters before it could become law.

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Democratic leaders then scheduled a hearing for Kalra’s original bill — the one that would create the universal health care system and set its rules — for next week. Assemblyman Jim Wood, the influential chair of the Assembly Health Committee, also announced he would vote for it.

Kalra’s first bill faces a tight deadline. It must pass the state Assembly by the end of the month to have a chance at passing this year. The deadline for the second bill — the one that would pay for everything — is months away.

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“There are countless studies that tell us a single-payer health care system is the fiscally sound thing to do, the smarter health care policy to follow, and a moral imperative if we care about human life,” Kalra said Thursday.

“I think it’s absolutely doable,” Kalra told reporters. “It’s about political will.”

But businesses and the California Medical Association are already working to stop both bills. Project Health Care, a coalition that includes the California Medical Association and the California Hospital Association, warned the plan would “take away any choice for anyone who might want to select private coverage or opt out.”

“Californians need and deserve a stable health care system they can rely on at all times, especially now,” spokesman Ned Wigglesworth said.

Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable, said the proposal would impose a financial burden on those struggling with the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and most Californians can currently receive medical treatment when needed.

“California already has near-universal health care coverage,” Lapsley said in a statement. “AB 1400 would eliminate health care options and force everyone into an untested government-run program.”

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Kalra said employers in California currently pay more than 9% of their payroll on average for employee health care costs. He said that would drop to 1.25% under his plan.

“We know that is where the opposition is going to hinge their energy on: ‘Oh look, a tax,’” he said. “What they don’t want to tell you is how much they are charging you right now for health care.”

Some health care advocates have long called for a universal health care system to replace the country’s system that relies on private insurance companies.

But the proposal has never come close to passing in Congress. State lawmakers in Vermont have tried and failed to implement a universal health care system. Kalra said the New York state Legislature is also considering a similar plan.

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.