Categories: Featured News

How To Kill The Change We Believe In: California Single Payer is Dead

Legislation takes compromise

Those who have pragmatic views of what one can gain via government have long been at odds with the progressive purists among us. People who work on policy understand negotiations, compromise, taking time. Ideologues – unknowing progressives – want it all NOW and want it just as they desire. Quick fixes! Immediate change! My way!

This past week these unknowing progressives finally did something that caused real damage to a highly desired outcome. Adopting the tactics of the TeaBaggers, they rallied for the beloved cause of single payer health care – and killed it. Here is the story.

Single payer has been on the California legislative docket since 2004. It was authored by former state Senator Sheila Kuehl, arguably one of the most intelligent and collegial senators perhaps ever. She shepherded the bill through both houses several times, only to have it vetoed by former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger who, although he grew up with single payer care in Austria, dismissed it as “socialist” here in his adopted state.

Kuehl was termed out in 2008, and another brilliant and energetic Senator, Mark Leno from San Francisco took up the mantle. The problem is, he came into the Senate along with a new set of legislators who had not walked the single payer walk and were unfamiliar with it and wary of its costs and consequences.

Single payer has been advocated for decades by zealous true believers. Early in the game they revealed their utter ignorance of legislative process by bombarding a senator’s staffer with aggressive demands that she reveal if she supported the plan even though staffers are not allowed to express personal opinions. Hovering over her like Snoopy playing vulture on the doghouse, they attacked the poor kid relentlessly. When an experienced lobbyist warned that this was a poor tactic, they turned on the lobbyist with fury and disdain.

The current bill, SB 810 has not sailed as smoothly as it did before mainly because the groups behind it could not be bothered to talk with the new senators and assembly members. Its first time out, it did not pass the Assembly.

Moreover, the fiscal analysis upon which much of the strength of the bill was pinned, was now obsolete, a decade old. Members of the state steering group agreed about 18 months ago that a new fiscal study was, indeed, essential, and members and Sen. Leno’s staff got a very knowledgeable group together. However, it was going to cost $250,000 to do the study, and the steering committee agreed to raise the money. To date, not one dime has been delivered.

Meanwhile, other steering committee members decided Leno wasn’t doing this fast enough and proposed going to the ballot and let voters decide. The rationale for this strategy lay in distrust in Sen. Leno’s “commitment” and a profoundly ignorant belief by the lead member that “Jerry will put it on the ballot for us.” Well, Governor Jerry Brown, cannot do any such thing. It would either have to be done with the expensive signature gathering – it costs $2-3 million just to gather signatures – or with an unachievable two-thirds supermajority of both legislative houses. When one steering committee member pointed that out, said member became persona non grata and was pretty much kicked out of the steering committee. Nevertheless, it was true. After several long months of fruitless interactions with a disinterested governor, the decision to raise the money was the next step. However, at the meeting where the report on fundraising was to occur, the ballot proponent was never showed up and simply disappeared. Why? No money. No report. No initiative.

Back to the legislature but this time with snarling anger toward Sen. Leno based on – well, it was not clear what. Single payer grassroots advocates began to accost him and his staff both in San Francisco and the Capitol. They berated staff if Leno wasn’t available, lambasting everyone, right down to the receptionist. They demanded accounts of what the Senator’s “tactics” were to be. Different groups came and went, all pounding desks and demanding “results”. Despite the lack of warm fuzzies from grassroots supporters, Sen. Leno doggedly re-introduced the bill with virtually no grassroots help.

And no help was forthcoming on economic analysis either. No fiscal analysis had been done, because no money had been raised, so the bill, predictably, languished in Senate Appropriations. Senators worried about what it would cost both the state and individuals and families. There was no way to tell. Would it hurt small businesses? Families? How could it be folded in with federal health reform (that single payer people hate and don’t remotely understand. After all – it’s not single payer. QED.) How would it dovetail with Medicare, Medicaid, VA benefits? Nothing gave them up to date information because there is no fiscal study. Single payer advocates get bored by those kinds of details…

Soldiering on and using every ounce of political good will, Senate leadership extracted the bill from Appropriations and moved it to the floor. There is failed to pass by 2 votes since 5 likely supporters abstained. These were the newer senators no one had bothered to court from the grassroots base. And to whom no economic analysis could be given..

Again using political influence, Senate leadership held the bill open for “reconsideration” until the following Tuesday in an effort to change a couple of votes. Supporters flew into a rage and began an all-out phone campaign directed to the five abstaining senators and also the author and leadership.

What they did not know because they did not trust the actors or the system or even talk to Sen. Leno’s office, was that again, using political capital and collegial interaction, both Leno and Senate leadership were asking two senators for a “courtesy vote” – moving the bill even though the voting senators still had doubts. That was being worked out when the grassroots “progressives” ratcheted up the heat Monday morning the day before the absolutely last vote.

Calls by the hundreds, thousands overall, flowed into the abstaining senators’ offices – calls as nasty, as brutal, as demanding, as vicious as anything the Baggers ever dished out. They yelled at anyone, again even receptionists, called names, said they were traitors. One young intern was shattered by the incredibly vituperative attacks on her personally. Other, older and more worldly-wise, were still stunned that supporters of a bill would treat those whose vote they sought in such nasty and bullying and bizarre ways. Younger staff were in shock, at least one reduced to tears, and the senators, incensed at the viciousness of these demands became disgusted.

The courtesy votes shriveled under the scorched-earth onslaught from pro single payer fans. At the end of the day before the reconsideration vote, the bill had to be pulled so it would not be killed. It’s quieter, less public, but it’s still dead.

Post-apocalyptic analysis the next day revealed not only was single payer DOA for the remainder of the session, there was a strong likelihood it would never again be picked up again by a single legislator. The stories of the supporters’ brutal treatment of Senator Leno, Senate leadership, and most of all, senate staff just shot through the Capitol. No legislator who had not been hermetically sealed during the fray could ignore it.

So single payer in California is most likely dead legislatively. Not just the bill – the issue. It wasn’t killed by the usual suspects, the insurance industry, Chamber of Commerce, big Pharma, hospitals, or anti-tax folks.

It was killed by the supporters.

Thanks ideological purists. You told everyone how morally superior you are and what sell-outs the Senators are. They all got that. You win.

Someday though I hope you can tell us all – what was it you won?

Image: PNHPCalifornia

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