State’s new political minefield: Health care bills’ personal touch 

Health care — who gets what services from whom and who pays for them — lives at the junction of heavy-duty politics, big-time money and human emotion.

Medical care is now California’s largest single economic activity, and government regulation and financing are key factors, thereby spawning heavy political activity. But health care is also a matter of life and death and as individual as a fingerprint, which convolute its politics even more.

Two bills that moved through the Capitol in the last hours of the 2011 legislative session last week after being initially blocked illustrate the complications.

Two of the building’s most experienced lobbyists voluntarily pushed for the bills because of their own personal issues.

Paula Treat, who usually lobbies for utilities, Indian tribes and cigar dealers, appeared before the Assembly Health Committee’s hastily called meeting on the final day to personally urge passage of legislation that would require doctors to issue a special warning to women with dense breasts about the limitations of mammograms to detect cancer.

“I happen to have dense breasts, very dense breasts,” Treat told the committee. “This bill saves lives.”

Physician groups opposed the mammogram bill, saying it raised “issues of liability,” which tied it to the decades-long battle between medical providers and trial lawyers over rules governing malpractice lawsuits.

The Assembly’s two physician members, Republican Linda Halderman and Democrat Richard Pan, were also opposed but it sailed through both houses on the last night on bipartisan votes.

Meanwhile, Rick Rollens, a veteran Senate staffer who left the Legislature to make more money as a lobbyist for mental health groups to pay for his autistic child’s care, was helping Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg resurrect a bill that would require health insurers to cover a particular autism treatment.

Steinberg’s autism bill, which also was sent to Gov. Jerry Brown for signature or veto, raised an issue that has long been a bone of political contention.

Critics complain that Democrats have continually expanded the list of conditions and treatments insurers must cover, thus raising their costs, while simultaneously decrying increases in consumers’ medical insurance premiums.

Just days before, the health-insurance industry had blocked legislation that would have subjected premiums to state regulation.

Moreover, the final bill placed the autism mandate on private insurers but specifically exempted state government’s medical programs for the poor and its own employees.

The politics of health care are never simple.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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Dan Walters

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