Reporting from Sacramento — As other GOP governors look to the courts to roll back the federal healthcare overhaul, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Thursday embraced the legislation and announced that he is directing his administration to begin implementing the new system in California.
"We are ready to roll up our sleeves and work with the federal government to get this done," Schwarzenegger said in a speech at UC Davis Medical Center. "The bottom line is this: If national healthcare reform is going to succeed, it has to be a partnership with the states…. I am directing my administration to move forward."
The governor said he would call a special session of the Legislature, if necessary, to quickly put in place the legislative changes needed for the federal healthcare plan. He also said his administration would work with the federal government to create a "high risk" coverage pool to cover Californians who have been refused insurance because of their medical histories.
Schwarzenegger said California also would enforce new federal rules that prevent insurance companies from denying coverage to children and would remove lifetime dollar limits on care.
The almost unequivocal endorsement is a turnabout for the governor: In January, he made headlines for harshly criticizing the proposal in his State of the State speech. Singling out a "sweetheart deal" secured by Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, a Democrat, Schwarzenegger complained that backroom deal-making in Congress had secured more federal assistance for some states than for others.
"That senator got for the Cornhusker State the corn, and we got the husk," he said in January.
The governor said Thursday that he was unconcerned that his enthusiasm for the new federal program could further strain relations with his own political party.
"I am not a party servant," he said. " I am a public servant."
Schwarzenegger's announcement drew praise from the Obama administration, which has been struggling to shore up support for the healthcare plan since the president signed it into law a month ago. The attorneys general of 14 states, mostly Republicans, have filed lawsuits seeking to overturn the federal legislation. GOP governors have endorsed the court action.
In California, Republican lawmakers are calling on Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown to join the litigation. Brown issued a statement in late March saying that "healthcare is not the place, with people's lives at stake, to engage in poisonous partisanship."
Detractors of the federal plan say it will place a crushing multibillion-dollar financial burden on states. The White House argues that such projections do not factor in huge savings that states will realize as tens of millions of Americans who are currently not covered are able to get insurance. Then, the administration says, states will no longer have to pay for those patients' emergency room visits and many other expenses associated with the uninsured.
Schwarzenegger has expressed concern about the other costs — estimating them at $2 billion to $3 billion per year for California — and has vowed to continue pressing the federal government to provide more implementation funds to the states. But he said the benefits of the federal plan outweigh such concerns.
"The plan is not without flaws," he said. "But it is a good law."
U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius released a statement Thursday saying that Schwarzenegger "deserves credit for his proactive work to help improve public health and prevent disease and illness."