Health Care Workers File Bold Voter Initiatives to Rein in Health Care Costs in California

11/28/2011 01:01 pm ET | Updated Jan 28, 2012
  • Dave Regan President, SEIU United Healthcare Workers West

Californians are less healthy than ever before. Alarming increases in the rates of manageable and preventable chronic diseases including obesity, diabetes, asthma, depression, hypertension and heart disease are overwhelming our health care system and destroying the quality of life for millions of people.

What if we could do something about that?

Health care workers, who are members of SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West, filed two statewide ballot initiatives with the California Attorney General on November 23rd that give consumers needed transparency on hospital costs, end overcharging for hospital services and ensure increased charity care for the neediest.

Three quarters of the hospital industry in California pay no taxes. Companies that operate tax-free should not be permitted to overcharge consumers, and they should be required to meet their charitable duty by providing a reasonable level of services for prevention, treatment and wellness to those in need.

The Charity Care Act of 2012 and the Fair Healthcare Pricing Act of 2012
will help consumers by ensuring that hospitals live up to their commitments to the communities where they operate.

It's a bold plan and here's why we are doing it:

California is facing a "perfect storm." We are enduring the worst economy in living memory. We are struggling with the worst fiscal challenges in most of our lifetimes. And, we are undoing the features of our post-World War II social contract -- no longer will the next generation have more than their parents. None of these challenges can be fully met unless we reform our health care system.

Take one family in Clovis, Calif. I'll call them Maria and Joseph Watson. If these initiatives had been enacted it would have meant lower bills and relief from bankruptcy. The couple was uninsured for nearly a year after Joseph lost his job and before Maria could find a new job with health benefits. In that time they accrued nearly $100,000 in medical debts. They were charged thousands of dollars for short hospital stays and hundreds of dollars for soap and toothpaste. Finally Maria got a job with health insurance, but at $363 a month to cover her husband, Maria couldn't immediately afford to add him to the policy.

Health care workers live and breathe these problems every day -- in hospitals and clinics, in clients' homes and in nursing homes. But we live in California -- the nation's largest, most dynamic and most diverse state. Health care workers here are perfectly situated to help create a healthier populace over the long-term.

Consumers like Maria endure a lot to get the care they need. In Maria's case, a sheriff's deputy served her with papers at the hospital while she was working, which made her feel like a criminal. The hospital even began to garnish Maria's wages. The situation was so overwhelming and unsustainable that the couple filed for bankruptcy.

These situations are stressful, but in the case of our health there is no choice but to find the best care available, and right now that costs too much money. The ballot initiatives -- Charity Care and Fair Healthcare Pricing -- are part of our union's "Let's Get Healthy California!" effort to improve the quality and reduce the cost of health care in California. For all consumers these two initiatives will mean lower health care costs and increased charity care for the needy in exchange for non-profit hospitals' tax exempt status.

Preserving the status quo is simply not possible. We need fundamental reform oriented around quality, cost-reduction and an aggressive attempt to reduce chronic disease. I believe these two initiatives are important pieces to building the next generation of California's care delivery system.