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Gov. opposes Democrats' prescription for healthcare

August 23, 2007|Jordan Rau | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took a firm stand Wednesday against the Democratic healthcare proposal moving through the Legislature, saying for the first time that he would not support an expansion of medical insurance if it were financed solely by new requirements on employers.

The Democratic proposal would require employers to spend at least the equivalent of 7.5% of their payroll on their workers' health. The governor insisted that the plan also must require all Californians to have insurance, an idea at the core of his January proposal.

Democrats omitted that concept, believing that many people would be unable to afford the premiums.

Schwarzenegger's program would have given employers the option of providing insurance or paying into a state fund that would offer it to uninsured workers and those who couldn't afford individual policies. It also would have spread the responsibility of paying for expanded healthcare to doctors and hospitals, an idea that was rejected by Democrats as politically infeasible.

Taxes on healthcare providers would require the support of Republican legislators, who strongly oppose both the governor's approach and that of the Democrats.

"We have a good shot of getting it done, not exactly my way but a compromise way," Schwarzenegger told several reporters called to his office in the Capitol. "But those elements have to be part of it."

The governor said he was not dispirited by the GOP's steady refusal of support.

"If I have to crawl around on all fours in the Capitol, it makes no difference to me. I just want to get it done," he said.

The ultimate plan, he said, "needs to have mandatory healthcare coverage and it needs to have shared responsibility."

Schwarzenegger has said repeatedly that all parts of society -- including healthcare providers, individuals and businesses -- must make sacrifices if all Californians are to be insured. Nearly 5 million residents lack coverage at any given time. The Democratic proposal would cover 69% of them. Schwarzenegger's comments were even more pointed earlier in the day, when he told the Sacramento Bee editorial board that he would veto a bill that failed to spread the costs around.

"If anyone over there thinks that I will sign a bill that . . . has only employer mandate, they shouldn't," he said, according to an account posted on the newspaper's website.

"I won't sign it. It won't happen," he said. Coming only three weeks before lawmakers plan to adjourn for the year, Schwarzenegger faces multiple hurdles to change California's healthcare system -- something he and Democrats say is their main priority for the year.

The most difficult challenge probably will be winning Republican votes. GOP senators engineered a budget standoff this summer that was resolved Tuesday, 51 days into the new fiscal year. It was the latest budget since 2002.

Republican objections to the budget were small compared with the opposition they have articulated to the healthcare approaches of both Schwarzenegger and the Democrats. They have opposed any payroll tax, and none of the 47 Republican legislators has supported the Democratic bill, AB 8.

"The governor -- with all due respect, and I love him because he's a good friend of mine -- he has to start operating in the same world that I'm operating in, which is the real world," said Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles).

"In the real world that I live in, I can control and manage a simple majority bill," Nuñez said -- one that does not require GOP support as a tax would.

Schwarzenegger, however, continued to assert that Republicans could be swayed. He said that although budget negotiations were "a tedious process that drove a lot of people up the wall and anger and everything, in the end, that's not the definition of accomplishment or failure."

"The definition of accomplishment or failure is, can we get the reform done or not?" he said.

Meanwhile, discontent over health insurance in the state is growing, according to a Field Poll released Wednesday.

The survey found that 69% of Californians are dissatisfied with the current system. That was a substantial increase from last December, when 44% reported that they were not happy.

Even among voters who identify themselves as conservative, only a third believe that California should rely on the free market to improve the healthcare system.

Though those results indicate more momentum for change, the poll also found that the solution favored by Democratic legislators and Schwarzenegger -- to build on the existing framework of private, job-based insurance and government programs -- has lost popularity.

Only 33% of respondents supported that approach, down from 52% in December.

The idea of scrapping private insurance altogether and enacting a state-run program -- an idea championed by Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) in the Legislature and Michael Moore in his film "SiCKO" -- has gained support: The poll found that 36% of Californians now prefer this approach, up from 24% nine months ago.

Schwarzenegger, however, reiterated his opposition Wednesday.

"It's very clear people don't like government running their healthcare system," he said.

--

jordan.rau@latimes.com

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