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Delay in healthcare vote urged

Labor and legislators haven't had time to vet the Nunez-backed plan, a union group says.

December 16, 2007|Jordan Rau | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez's effort to speed a healthcare overhaul plan through the Legislature is being opposed by the trade group that represents California's labor unions, which is taking the rare step of urging Democratic legislators to defy their own leader.

In a letter obtained Saturday, the California Labor Federation's leader, Art Pulaski, urged Assembly members to postpone the Monday vote on the bill, which Nunez (D-Los Angeles) submitted Friday after reaching agreements with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on the scope of a plan to require almost all Californians to hold healthcare insurance.

Writing that "we are dismayed at the process," Pulaski complained that neither labor nor lawmakers had had enough time to vet the complex measure and decide whether it offered adequate protections against middle-class workers' being forced to purchase insurance policies they could not afford.

"We feel cheated of the opportunity to take a position on a bill that will impact the lives of every working family in California," Pulaski wrote. "We do not know whether this bill will protect working families who cannot afford a healthcare mandate or whether families will be driven into low-quality, high-deductible plans."

The 239-page bill would require everyone to acquire private health insurance, but would limit subsidies and tax credits to families earning less than four times the poverty level, or $83,600 for a family of four.

Pulaski also wrote that it would be "irresponsible" for the federation to consider supporting the measure until it had reviewed the method for financing the healthcare overhaul, whose cost was pegged at about $14 billion a year.

That portion of the plan is not being taken up in the Assembly because Republicans have refused to support it, and without a two-thirds vote it would die. Nunez and Schwarzenegger have decided to do an end-run around the Republicans by collecting signatures for an initiative that would contain taxes on employers, tobacco and hospitals to finance the plan. But no one outside the negotiations has been able to review the initiative language, which is still being drafted.

Steve Maviglio, a spokesman for Nunez, said the Assembly would go ahead with the vote despite the federation's misgivings. He said that the plan had been in the works for months and that the labor federation had been "at the table from Day One until the last meeting."

Maviglio said that "it isn't an easy decision for labor" to endorse the approach Nunez and Schwarzenegger have compromised on. "But the choice is between that and wanting something they'll never be able to achieve with a Republican governor," he said.

The federation's plea sets the stage for a rare open split within the state's powerful labor community, which holds substantial sway over the 48 Democrats in the Assembly.

The Service Employees International Union, the biggest healthcare union in the state with 600,000 members, is expected to endorse Nunez's effort and lobby for its passage. Andy Stern, president of the international, is scheduled to come from Washington for the vote Monday afternoon, two sources said.

Like the labor federation's leadership, SEIU has also had qualms about the bill. But the union's leaders have decided that its passage in California would be an important milestone in efforts to achieve healthcare changes at the national level.

Jerry Flanagan, the healthcare advocate with the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a Santa Monica-based nonprofit organization, said SEIU's organizing drive also stood to gain from the bill. He said one provision would allow retail clinics such as ones that Wal-Mart wants to establish to be staffed with medical assistants without a physician present.

"That's a major financial opportunity for SEIU," said Flanagan, whose group has opposed the bill as a giveaway to private insurers. "That means a vast number of new dues-paying members."

Through most of the year, SEIU had expressed reservations about the affordability of the plan, putting it on the same page as the labor federation. But on Dec. 4, SEIU's leadership council replaced its council president, who had balked at the plan, with another local union head whose vision is more in line with Stern's. Since then, the union's support has intensified.

SEIU has also expanded its support of Nunez's other major political goal: an initiative on the February ballot that would change the state's term-limits law in a way that would allow Nunez to remain in the Assembly beyond next year. The union donated $600,000 last week to the Proposition 93 campaign, bringing SEIU's total contributions to $1.1 million.

SEIU representatives did not respond to requests for comment Saturday.

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jordan.rau@latimes.com

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