Single-payer health care back under San Jose assemblyman’s plan
Assemblymember Ash Kalra is pictured in this file photo.

Watching friends and family without health insurance struggle to cover the costs of doctors’ appointments and medicines left a mark on Meriam Ahmad. In fact, the experience launched the high school junior to lobby for change.

“It is something that I don’t want to be dealing with later in life, and it is something I don’t want to see anyone around me dealing with,” Ahmad said. “I already see that in my own family, my own friends and the people that I work with. I’m fighting for myself and for them.”

In early 2020, Ahmad, a student at Basis Independent Silicon Valley High School, and a group of health care activists met with Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren’s staff. The group urged her to co-sponsor a bill to reimburse Americans for health care costs during the pandemic.

At the time, staff said, the legislation was a non-starter. There was no way the then-Republican majority Senate and White House would sign off on such a plan.

But, her activism might be paying off in her assembly district.

Last month, San Jose Assemblyman Ash Kalra proposed AB 1400, a single-payer health care bill. The bill, or CalCare as Kalra and its supporters know it, would create a state insurance plan to cover Californians regardless of citizenship, employment or income. Unlike Medicare, CalCare will also provide dental, vision and long-term care coverage. Californians could keep their employer’s private insurance if they prefer.

Kalra hasn’t made it clear how exactly the state would pay for the program, leaving that to the “intent of the Legislature.” That has proven a sticking point in the past for similar plans.

A similar bill in 2017 carried a $400 billion annual price tag—twice the state’s budget at the time. Ultimately, that drove lawmakers away.

Members of the Santa Clara County Single Payer Health Care Coalition participate in a car honking rally on Mar. 6 in Mountain View. Photo courtesy Meriam Ahmad and Jessa Durero.

CalCare is likely to cost just as much and require the state to redirect billions in federal funds to help pay for the program.

“More work can be done to make health care more affordable, but dismantling our entire health care system and replacing it with one run by state government is the costliest, most disruptive way to do it,” said Ned Wigglesworth, a consultant for Californians Against the Costly Disruption of Our Healthcare, a group made up of insurance plans, doctors and hospitals that oppose a single-payer health care system.

Kalra, however, said CalCare would cost less than the current system that already costs Californians $450 billion in medical bills, copays and other costs, which doesn’t even cover all Californians.

“It’s obviously scary to try something dramatically different, but right now there are millions suffering in our current system,” Kalra said. “We can either continue our system of massive profit at the expense of people who actually pay for the system, or we can look at what dozens of other countries do.”

Funding seems to be the sticking point for many Californians: A 2017 Public Policy Institute of California survey found that 56% of likely voters would support a single-payer system, but support dropped to 43% if the plan included higher taxes.

“None of these changes are practical, much less supported by California voters,” Wigglesworth said.

However, a recent 2020 UC Berkeley survey found that a majority of Bay Area residents would be in support of a single-payer system. Ahmad remains among them.

“I love this nation so much that I hate to see it lag behind so much in this way,” Ahmad said. She chairs the local chapter of Students for a National Health Program, a national advocacy group that organizes rallies to support universal health care. The local chapter has approximately 50 members from different high schools and universities across the South Bay.

According to data from the California Health Care Foundation, approximately 127,000 Santa Clara County residents are uninsured, and data from the U.S. Census says 5% of county adults under 65 are uninsured.

Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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