Bill on Health Insurance for Poor Loses

Times Staff Writer

A move to broaden the availability of health insurance in California failed Wednesday when the Assembly defeated legislation to provide basic and catastrophic coverage for those who cannot obtain it.

The bill by Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Tarzana) failed on a 45-27 vote, nine short of the two-thirds majority it needed in the 80-member lower house. The Assembly granted permission to have the bill reconsidered before the Legislature adjourns for the year Sept. 15.

The measure would create a nonprofit health insurance pool for the poor and for people who, because of serious illness, have been denied insurance coverage on the private market. Participation by insurance companies would be voluntary. The program would be operated privately but guided by a government-appointed commission.

Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), who carried the bill on the floor, described the measure as "somewhat visionary."

"It does not mandate anything," Brown said. "It simply affords the opportunity for this kind of thing to exist, which is not now available under existing law."

Brown said the bill was supported by groups representing large and small businesses as well as the insurance industry, organized labor and local governments.

But the bill was criticized for not providing a simple way for middle-class, working Californians to supplement their existing health coverage with a policy to protect them from financial ruin in case of a catastrophic illness or injury.

Assemblyman Steve Peace (D-La Mesa) said the measure is flawed because it would allow only those without insurance to purchase the catastrophic coverage. That means ordinary people covered by an individual or employee policy could not participate, he said.

And Assemblyman Dave Elder (D-San Pedro) said he had authored a superior bill that would have allowed anyone to buy catastrophic coverage for as little as $59 a year. Elder said the insurance under his proposal would be cheaper because the cost of the program would be shared by healthy and ailing citizens, not just those who had already been denied insurance because of their illnesses. Robbins has estimated that his proposal would cost about $368 a month for an individual.

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