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California Legislature

With Obamacare's future uncertain, hundreds rally at state Capitol for single-payer healthcare in California

The details of their plan are still hazy, but proponents of a single-payer healthcare system in California are already ramping up pressure on lawmakers to back publicly funded universal coverage.

Hundreds rallied at the state Capitol on Wednesday to back SB 562, a measure introduced last week that would establish a single-payer system in California.

The rally was organized by the California Nurses Assn., a union that has long backed universal healthcare and was an ardent supporter of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders in his 2016 run. Sanders (I-Vt.) ran on a "Medicare for all" platform, a cause that the nurses have continued to back now that Republicans in Washington are seeking to repeal or overhaul the Affordable Care Act.

Among those in attendance were the bill's authors, state Sens. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) and Toni Atkins (D-San Diego). Lara, addressing the crowd, said the "core values" behind the proposal include coverage for everyone in California, regardless of immigration status, and a clamp-down on prescription drug prices.

The bill itself is, for the moment, short on specifics, including how the new system would be paid for.

Single-payer proposals have surfaced in the Legislature before. In 2006, one such bill made it to then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's desk but was vetoed.

RoseAnn DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United and its California affiliate, said lawmakers would need to grasp "the sea change in the politics of our country."

DeMoro trained most of her focus on Democratic legislators, whom she said were being pressured by insurers and other industry players to shy away from single-payer.

As for Gov. Jerry Brown, who often preaches fiscal caution, DeMoro said the governor "is not ideologically opposed to single-payer. He's a pragmatist." But, she added, supporters must prove such a plan would be viable.

Rally attendees walked a fine line in defending the existing healthcare law — the Affordable Care Act, now under threat — while also arguing it did not go far enough.

"We're not attacking the Affordable Care Act. It brought some good things. But even if it works perfectly, there's still 28 million people uninsured," said Don Behcler, chairman of the San Francisco-based group Single Payer Now.

"Instead of having a second-class healthcare system, we could have a first-class healthcare system in state or national single-payer. If you leave 28 million people out of healthcare, you can't call it first class," he said.

Lara, the bill's coauthor, said the uncertainty over Obamacare's future offered an opportunity to think about alternatives.

"The important thing is for us to have that discussion now," he said. "If not now, when?"

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