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Legislators get bills off their plate

Measures dealing with cancellation of health insurance, mortgage lenders and calorie content are OKd.

September 01, 2008|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Insurance companies could no longer cancel with impunity the health coverage of sick people under a measure passed Sunday in the last hour of the Legislature's session.

Lawmakers also moved to require that chain restaurants tell patrons the calorie content of their food; restrict unscrupulous practices by mortgage lenders; launch state review of chemicals; ban the sale of recalled products; and give college financial assistance to illegal immigrants.

The Legislature finished its work on bills Sunday, but because lawmakers have yet to agree to a budget -- it is 63 days overdue -- they will return next week to work on a spending plan.

"It really is a sad note that we wrap up the session and we will have the distinction of saying this is the longest the state has gone without having a budget," said Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles). "We're going to continue working until we adopt a budget."

One of the session's most contentious proposals won bipartisan support in the end, despite strong objections from insurance companies.

The insurance measure would ban companies from canceling policies retroactively except under certain conditions, such as when a person intentionally misleads an insurer about his or her health history when applying for coverage.

Five insurers have been fined a combined $15 million in the last couple of years for rescinding the health insurance of more than 3,300 people. Under AB 1945 by Assemblyman Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate), insurers could cancel policies only under specified conditions, and their rescission decisions would be reviewed by state regulators.

De La Torre said that under his bill, health insurers would no longer be "the judge and the jury when they dump somebody."

Though Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has not taken a position on the bill, he has called upon legislators to stop insurers from kicking sick people off their rolls.

The lower house also passed a companion measure by Assemblyman Kevin DeLeon (D-Los Angeles), AB 2569, that would require insurers to continue covering the family members of people whose policies have been rescinded.

In the Senate on Sunday, lawmakers gave final approval to a measure that would force Californians to face some dietary facts when ordering stuffed-crust pizza, char-grilled rib-eye and chalupas.

Under SB 1420 by Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) chains such as McDonald's, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC, Applebee's and Outback Steakhouse would have to at least make brochures available at cash registers or put placards on tables that list the calorie content of various menu items.

By January 2011, under the measure, the same restaurants would have to list calories on menus or menu boards.

"This bill would provide California with reliable nutritional information and help consumers make more informed choices when eating out," said Padilla, who noted that 16 million Californians are overweight.

Those who voted against the bill included Sen. Bob Margett (R-Arcadia).

"It's an imposition on restaurants, including added costs, when most people who are managing their weight know pretty well how many calories are involved," he said.

Lawmakers trying to prevent another foreclosure crisis in California also gave final approval to a measure by Assemblyman Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) that would ban certain practices by mortgage lenders and brokers.

Those practices include steering prospective home buyers to high-interest loans and offering incentives to brokers to do so.

The measure, AB 1830, would also bar brokers and lenders from making false statements about certain loans and eliminate amortized loans that lead a borrower to owe more on a loan that its original balance.

Republicans called the bill "overreaction" and "overregulation," but Lieu noted that none of them defended the practices he seeks to ban.

"How many of us here think it's OK to make misleading statements?" asked Lieu before the Assembly voted 43 to 21 to pass his bill.

In other action, the Assembly approved a measure that seeks to create a process for analyzing the risks of the chemicals to which Californians are commonly exposed.

AB 1879 by Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) would authorize state scientists to review the health effects of chemicals and take action, if necessary, to restrict their use.

Feuer's bill won widespread support.

"It really sets the type of policy we should embrace," said Assemblyman Cameron Smyth (R-Santa Clarita).

A related measure approved by the Assembly is aimed at getting recalled products, such as toys containing lead paint, off store shelves and into hazardous-waste sites.

AB 1860 by Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) would make it illegal to sell a recalled product and require retailers to remove such products from their stores. Such removal is now voluntary under federal rules.

In what has become an annual rite, the Assembly also passed a measure by Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), SB 1301, to allow illegal immigrant students to receive financial aid at state universities.

Schwarzenegger has twice vetoed similar legislation, saying it would siphon financial aid from students whose parents obeyed immigration laws.

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nancy.vogel@latimes.com

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