Health measures to dominate 2014 voter ballot

by Marc Lifsher, Los Angeles Times

Obamacare’s troubled rollout — and its more successful California start — may be dominating the news now. But wait till next year.

An election year ballot full of health issues awaits California voters next November. And the lineup could spur a campaign free-for-all that may prompt hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign spending.

“The more the merrier,” said Jamie Court, president of advocacy group Consumer Watchdog. Next year “could be the year of health reform. The more we can do to fix the federal health reform and make it cheaper and safer for consumers, the better.”

Court’s group has cleared for the November 2014 ballot an initiative that, if passed, would give the state insurance commissioner power to regulate and veto proposed health rate increases — as he now does with auto policies.

Regulating auto insurance has saved California consumers more than $100 billion since passage of Proposition 103 in 1988, according to the Consumer Federation of America.

Consumer Watchdog also is part of a coalition gathering signatures for another measure that would raise the current $250,000 lid on jury awards for pain-and-suffering damages awarded in medical malpractice lawsuits, adjusting it for inflation to about $1 million.

But wait, there’s more

The Service Employees International Union has submitted two initiative proposals. One would prohibit hospitals from charging patients more than a 25% markup on the cost of services. A second would put a $450,000 limit on the annual pay of nonprofit hospital executives. According to the union, California’s 10 highest paid nonprofit hospital executives received average annual salaries of $2.6 million.

“These measures will require hospitals to … bring down the cost of healthcare,” said SEIU spokesman Sean Wherley.

California Hospital Assn. spokeswoman Jan Emerson-Shea noted that “there seems to be a lot of interest groups who want to use the ballot to achieve their own agenda.”

Turn, turn

The granddaddy of California consumer groups, the Utility Reform Network, is turning 40. The San Francisco group began at the kitchen table of Marin County ratepayer Sylvia Siegel, who was upset over skyrocketing electricity bills. She died in 2007 at age 89.

State law allows groups such as Turn to “intervene” in utility regulation proceedings on behalf of utility customers and to get paid for it. The organization has a budget of $4 million a year and a staff of 15. “Goliath corporations need to be confronted by advocates for people who are paying the bills,” Executive Director Mark Toney said.

Turn’s biggest achievements were convincing regulators to shave billions of dollars off rates, preserving access to phone service for the poor and ensuring the cost of renewable energy is as low as possible, Toney said. The biggest mistake, he conceded, was agreeing to a 1996 legislative compromise that created a failed electric deregulation law.