County Pulse

County Pulse: Swords are crossed over health care issues in California

kcarlson@modbee.comJanuary 24, 2014 

The elections this year are setting the stage for a slugfest over health care policy in California.

The Service Employees International Union said Friday that it’s giving $1.5 million to the Yes for a Healthy California committee, which is pushing two statewide ballot measures to reduce hospital costs.

The Fair Healthcare Pricing Act of 2014 would prohibit hospitals from setting charges more than 25 percent above the costs of caring for patients. A second initiative backed by the union would place a $450,000 limit on annual compensation for executives who manage nonprofit hospitals in California.

According to the union, the measures take aim at hospitals that charged a total of $233.6 billion for patient care in 2012 but reported operating expenses of only $54.5 billion. The union said the average annual salary for the highest-paid executives of nonprofit hospitals in the state was $2.4 million and many administrators were paid more than $1 million a year.

The SEIU – United Healthcare Workers West filed to place the measures on the November ballot and signatures are being gathered. Hospital industry groups counter that pay raises for unionized hospital workers are a major factor for rising patient-care costs.

California voters also are expected to see an initiative on the state’s 38-year-old limit on damages paid to victims of medical malpractice. The measure backed by trial lawyers would lift the cap on noneconomic damages in lawsuits from $250,000 to more than $1 million. The California Medical Association certainly will resist the changes to the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act of 1975, a tort-reform law signed by Jerry Brown the first time he was governor.

And then there is federal health reform. Conservatives are viewing the state and congressional races as a chance for voters to take revenge for canceled health insurance policies. In the fall, about a million Californians were told their individual-market health plans were canceled for not meeting the new federal standards.

For the most part, those consumers were offered more expensive policies or the torture of getting a health plan through the Covered California exchange. It’s estimated that a third of those with canceled policies were eligible for subsidized plans under the Affordable Care Act.

Many business owners are dreading the employer mandate of Obamacare and could be generous with campaign contributions this year.

I almost forgot to mention Consumer Watchdog, which is placing an initiative on the November ballot that, if approved, would give the state insurance commissioner authority to reject health insurance rate increases that are not justified by insurers. The consumer group was founded by Harvey Rosenfield, who made his name in the 1980s battling auto insurance companies.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or (209) 578-2321.

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