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California Lawmakers Move Bills To Guarantee Health Coverage

Pre-existing conditions would not prevent a Californian from buying health insurance on the individual market in 2014, if state lawmakers succeed with a push to make sure the main tenets of the national health law survive in the state – no matter how the U.S. Supreme Court rules later this month.

Last week lawmakers put forth identical bills on pre-existing conditions in both houses of California’s legislature. The bills would also create new rules for setting premium rates. For example, an older person couldn’t be charged more than three times a younger counterpart.

“I feel tremendous responsibility to ensure that California continues to lead the nation, implementing federal reform, and that we serve as a model for the rest of this country,” said Democratic state Senator Ed Hernandez about his bill.

But state Republicans raised concerns about moving forward before the Supreme Court decision.

GOP state Senator Sam Blakeslee argued that if California guarantees insurance, but there’s no requirement to buy it, only sick people would flock to the market. He said their care could drive up costs and cause flight from the insurance pool. That could cause health market changes to “fail, and potentially catastrophically.”    

The California insurance industry wants the bills amended to include a mandate.

“Disconnecting the requirement to join the insurance pool from the duty to sell insurance at the same price, doesn’t work,” says Patrick Johnston, CEO of the California Association of Health Plans.

But advocates say the bills would implement important pieces of the federal health system overhaul law. Legislative Director of CALPIRG, Pedro Morillas, says currently, people with pre-existing conditions find themselves uninsurable.

“That is just a bad spot for both the consumers with the condition, and then overall it’s just not the way that the health care marketplace is supposed to work,” says Morillas.

The two identical bills were introduced in both chambers of the California legislature – the Assembly and the Senate. They were passed by a floor vote in their houses of origin and must still pass the other chamber. The two bills could merge, or one could be eliminated before reaching Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk. By then it’s likely the Supreme Court will have had its say.

This story is part of a reporting partnership that includes Capital Public Radio, NPR and Kaiser Health News.