California Democrats revive universal health care bill

Democrats in the California Legislature on Thursday revived a plan for what could be the nation’s first universal health care system — prompting strong opposition from doctors and health insurers overtax increases for businesses and individuals that would pay for the plan and only if voters approved the tax hikes.

State Assemblyman Ash Kalra, a Democrat from San Jose, introduced a bill last year to create a universal health care system in California. But the bill stalled in part because it did not include a way to pay for it.

Kalra on Thursday revealed a second bill that would amend the state Constitution to raise taxes on some businesses and individuals. The personal income tax increase would only apply to people who earn about $150,000 per year or more. That bill would require a two-thirds vote of both houses of the Legislature and must be approved by voters before it could become law.

Democratic leaders then scheduled a hearing for Kalra’s original bill — the one that would create the universal health care system and set its rules — for next week. Assemblyman Jim Wood, the influential chair of the Assembly Health Committee, also announced he would vote for it.

Kalra’s first bill faces a tight deadline. It must pass the state Assembly by the end of the month to have a chance at passing this year. The deadline for the second bill — the one that would pay for everything — is months away.

"I think it’s absolutely doable," Kalra told reporters. "It’s about political will."

But businesses and the California Medical Association are already working to stop both bills. Project Health Care, a coalition that includes the California Medical Association and the California Hospital Association, warned the plan would "take away any choice for anyone who might want to select private coverage or opt out."

"Californians need and deserve a stable health care system they can rely on at all times, especially now," spokesman Ned Wigglesworth said.

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Kalra said employers in California currently pay more than 9% of their payroll on average for employee health care costs. He said that would drop to 1.25% under his plan.

"We know that is where the opposition is going to hinge their energy on: ‘Oh look, a tax,’" he said. "What they don’t want to tell you is how much they are charging you right now for health care."

Some health care advocates have long called for a universal health care system to replace the country’s system that relies on private insurance companies.

But the proposal has never come close to passing in Congress. State lawmakers in Vermont have tried and failed to implement a universal health care system. Kalra said the New York state Legislature is also considering a similar plan.

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