At the first of two town hall meetings at the Sonora Opera Hall Thursday, nearly 100 people were told about the advantages of a plan to guarantee healthcare for all Californians under a single-payer model.
But when members of the public were given an opportunity to speak, they posed two common questions — how much will it cost and who was going to pay for it?
Pilar Schiavo, a Sonora-area native who organized the presentation on behalf of the California Nurses Association, said her knowledge of the Tuolumne County community contributed to her understanding that cost was the greatest underlying concern for the public, but that the bill pending in the state legislature, SB 562, “would really make a difference here in my hometown.”
“Ultimately. healthcare is not partisan. whether you're Republican or Democrat or Independent,” she said. “Your health does not matter what party you belong to. But your wallet will certainly notice when you have to do that.”
Phil Nichols, of Groveland, said the discussion of single-payer health care had been raging in Tuolumne County since Democratic State Senator Sheila Kuehl’s single-payer health care bill was vetoed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2008.
“People want to know how much am I going to have to pay? And they can know that if they know their adjusted gross income” and whether the tax levied on people will be on a progressive scale, he said.
Schiavo noted that the inspiration for the current bill was New York SB S4840, which included the progressive payroll tax, a system where a person’s tax rate contribution would increase based on increases in their income.
“We think that people are going to come out ahead,” she said.
Healthy California, a collection of health care advocacy organizations that is sponsoring the bill, was awaiting the results of a study to determine what financing methods would best serve California residents and businesses, she said.
SB 562 has not yet reached the stage to be considered by the State Assembly Committee on Appropriations.
Dean Zaharias, of Sonora, also contributed to the line of questioning on funding, asking “What is the funding mechanism? Will income be taxed at the same level… as investments and capital?”
“The study is looking at all of our options,” Schiavo said. In terms of investments and high-income earners, Schiavo said that the study was considering a “tiered system” like the New York bill’s funding method.
Most of the crowd was comprised of the elderly and senior citizens.
Throughout her presentation, Schiavo described comparatively paltry health care outcomes in the United States compared to other industrialized nations and also outlined the alleged price-gouging abuses of insurance and pharmaceutical companies.
“We spend more and we get less. That is the reality of our healthcare system,” she said.
When presenting a comparative by-country, health care cost to age expectancy graphic to the crowd, Schiavo elicited a series of hushed murmurs and excitable yells from the crowd when she noted that the average American pays $9,024 in health care costs, but fell below the average global life expectancy of industrialized nations at 79.2 years.
“We’re not going to the doctor more, we’re not having better outcomes, but we are paying one and a half times as much for healthcare,” Schiavo said, indicating the next most expensive healthcare on the graph, Switzerland with $6,787 per person per year.
But the crux of her presentation laid the blame on insurance pharmaceutical companies, who she even noted “were not going to like the bill.”
“We are paying the price that is set for us,” she said. “The choice is, are you going to save your life or not?”
In one slide specifically about Tuolumne County, Schiavo also indicated that citizens here paid the most in the state for chronic illnesses because of a “lack of preventative care.” The slide also indicated that Tuolumne County has the 4 th highest cancer rate in the state and over 60 percent of kids 5 and under on Medi-Cal.
Following her presentation was keynote speaker Dr. Bob Derlet, a Tuolumne County physician who ran unsuccessfully against U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock last fall.
He called the people to action against the predatory and unethical methods employed by insurance companies to lower costs and shield patients from care.
“I see it everyday in the trenches. I’m fighting insurance companies. I spend hours on the telephone every week, hours I should be spending with people.”
After sharing anecdotes about patients that had been denied coverage, charged exorbitant amounts for care, or restricted to providers within their network, Derlet said, “these inequities and gross ripoffs need to be stopped and the only way they can be stopped is with a single payer.”
Like Schiavo, Derlet appealed to the crowd to contact their local assemblyman and senator to declare their support for the bill.
The town hall functioned as a forum to engage the support of the community on a bill that is still in its formative stages. A group of Tuolumne County locals plan to make the trip to Sacramento next week to join in a rally supporting the bill when it is first considered in a hearing, Schiavo said.
At the conclusion of her speech, Schiavo called to the crowd to support the bill as a part of a wave of activism sweeping the nation.
“It takes a movement, and a movement moment,” she said. “That is an opportunity for us to really change healthcare and lead the nation.”