Herdt: Health care battles pending

Health care reform is certain to become a dominant political issue in California this fall, as special interests are gearing up to engage voters in a spirited debate about access to doctors and hospitals, health insurance costs and taxes to fund government programs.

Oh, and there's likely to be some political discussion of Obamacare as well.

As California embarks on another ballot-initiative season, measures dealing with health care issues are proliferating.

Already qualified for the ballot is a health insurance rate-regulation measure that would for the first time give the state insurance commissioner the ability to reject proposed premium increases if they are found to be excessive.

That proposal, backed by Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, is certain to not only provoke the insurance industry but also to engender opposition from supporters of the Affordable Care Act, who fear the measure could undercut the ability of the state's health insurance purchasing exchange to negotiate rates for policies offered through CoveredCA.com.

Also likely on the horizon is a battle royal between attorneys and doctors over California's $250,000 cap on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits, a cap that has not been adjusted since it was established 39 years ago. When the cap was set in 1975, a new car could be purchased for less than $7,000 and the gas to run it cost about 60 cents a gallon.

Adding spice -#8212; and, presumably, political appeal -#8212; to that measure is a provision that would require hospitals to administer random drug testing to doctors. Although backed by the Consumer Attorneys of California, it is sponsored by someone who has far more sympathetic appeal than an association of trial lawyers.

The chief proponent, Robert Pack, is a Bay Area businessman who lost his two young children in a car accident caused by a prescription-drug-addicted driver. He is driven by a sense of injustice both over what he perceives as lax controls over doctors who negligently prescribe opiate-based painkillers and the fact that California's civil justice system essentially set the punitive cost of those responsible for taking his two children's lives at $250,000, minus attorneys' fees.

The newest initiatives added to the health care mix are two hospital cost-containment proposals sponsored by the SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West union. One would prohibit hospitals from charging more than 25 percent above the estimated cost of goods and services provided to patients. The other would prohibit nonprofit hospitals from compensating executives at rate higher than that paid the president of the United States, now at $450,000.

The SEIU-UHW announced last week it has set aside $2 million to qualify those initiatives for the ballot.

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