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Never say die

Once legislators stop blaming each other for the demise of healthcare reform, they can try again.

January 31, 2008

Once again, Sacramento has failed California. From misdirected water bond talks to lip service on redistricting to hopes for a "Year of Education" that will go unrealized to this week's defeat of healthcare reform, we are reminded of state government's sad inability to get anything done.

To be sure, fixing healthcare is a tall order -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) join a long list of ambitious public officials who've tried, and failed, to deliver universal care. That they were unable to get ABX1 1 through the state Senate wasn't for lack of trying. Fourteen months of intense negotiations forged an alliance of labor, business, consumer advocates, hospitals and even a few insurers to back an imperfect but promising bill.

Recriminations are underway. Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland), who cosponsored the bill but dropped his support at the last minute, has blamed budget woes. Some backers of the bill speculate that lobbying by tobacco companies and small business (which would have helped fund the plan), as well as opposition from some health insurers, were what really did it in. Nunez, for his part, complains that ABX1 1 had to compete against pie-in-the-sky calls for a single-payer system, and he has pledged to run such a proposal -- and for that matter, all sorts of legislation that might cross his desk -- through the same extraordinary fiscal gantlet ABX1 1 endured. Ah, yes, that should break the gridlock in Sacramento.

Hopefully Nunez, whose frustration is understandable, can work through his emotions quickly, because there is still much good that can come of his efforts of the last year. At a news conference Tuesday, flanked by the governor and supporters of ABX1 1, he promised that "this bill is not something we're throwing in the trash." There is already talk of a campaign for staged healthcare reform, which would unroll over the course of two or three years instead of one (and which might benefit if a Democrat instead of a Republican lands in the White House). Concentrating first on providing coverage for children is also an option.

Whatever direction the conversation takes, Nunez and Schwarzenegger should keep the focus on comprehensive reform and the notion of shared responsibility. Their great achievement was forging a broad coalition for change. Their greatest failure would be letting it disintegrate.

Even children's healthcare advocates, who would gain tremendously if the talk turns to their cause, seem to understand this. One such advocate said he "just couldn't believe that these guys didn't get this done." He said he still had hopes for a comprehensive reform bill. He seems willing to put his interests aside -- at least for a little while -- for the greater good. Why can't our elected officials?

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