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New studies help shape state lawmakers’ debate over heath care reform

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San Jose Mercury News

The health reform debate heats up today around California with the release of two new policy studies this morning and an afternoon of state Senate debate over a Democratic reform proposal.

At stake: health coverage for more Californians. About 6.5 million of the state’s residents, 20 percent of the population, are uninsured.

After reviewing the projected economic impact of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s and the leading Democratic reform proposals, University of California-Berkeley researchers concluded that neither plan will cause job losses in California.

Most firms will see little to no change in their operating costs after an adjustment period, researchers predict: the Governor’s proposal would, in the short term, raise business’ operating costs about one-tenth of a percent, while the Democratic proposal would raise those costs by about six-tenths of a percent.

In addition, the state could see up to $3.7 billion in new federal health care funds. Both plans would improve worker productivity as healthier, insured employees take fewer sick days, the researchers concluded.

“This should allay concerns that either of the plans will have any negative impacts on the economy,” said lead researcher Ken Jacobs, chair of the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education.

Schwarzenegger’s proposal would require employers to spend about 4 percent of payroll on health insurance for workers. Insurers would be forced to cover all Californians regardless of their health, and citizens would be required to purchase basic health insurance. The Democratic bill AB 8, debated in committee today, would require employers to pay 7.5 of payroll toward health insurance but would not require residents to purchase health insurance or insurers to provide coverage regardless of health status.

Schwarzenegger was on hand today for the release of a second study, by University of California-Los Angeles researchers, that showed that an estimated 6.5 million Californians, 20 percent of the state’s population, were uninsured for all or part of 2005.

That uninsured rate is slightly lower than the nearly 22 percent rate in 2001, but the researchers said job-based health insurance is declining, covering about 2 percent fewer workers between 2001 and 2005. Government-funded health care is making up the difference, researchers said.

“This research underscores everything we have been talking about. Coverage is eroding because costs are out of control,” Schwarzenegger said. “All this points out once again that we need comprehensive health care reform that insures everyone and guarantees all Californians have access to affordable and reliable care.”