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The union that roars: Nurses not giving up on single-payer push

Pauline Bartolone | California Healthline | 7/13/2017, midnight
To some, the California Nurses Association’s political tactics in pushing for a single-payer health system seemed a bit, well, extreme. ...

The union, founded in 1903, has always “punched above its weight,” said Thad Kousser, chair of the political science department at University of California San Diego.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a professor of public policy communication at the University of Southern California, agreed.

“I’m not sure we would be discussing single-payer if not by the push of the nurses’ association,” Jeffe said.

The union, which is affiliated with National Nurses United, makes no apologies for its approach, saying it is determined to hold lawmakers accountable. And it has no intention of backing off its campaign for a single-payer system in the state, an effort that would put the California government in charge of funding health care.

“We’re going to demand that the legislature legislate and move this bill,” said Michael Lighty, director of public policy at California Nurses Association/National Nurses United.

Lighty said that the rallies reflect Californians’ desperation and fear about losing health coverage under Republican proposals to repeal Obamacare more than anything else.

Although Lighty said the union’s elected nurse leaders collectively decide on its actions, supporters and critics alike see DeMoro as setting the tone and agenda.

People focus on DeMoro because she “pushes the parameters of the politically possible” and that rubs “defenders of the status quo” the wrong way, Lighty said. DeMoro, on vacation, was unavailable for comment.

Kuehl, who attempted several times to pass a single-payer bill, said the California Nurses Association has always been “very aggressive for the things they believed in.”

A smaller health consumer advocacy group persuaded Kuehl to carry the bill for the first time in 2003-04, Kuehl recalled, but the California Nurses Association brought more visibility and credibility, when they joined her effort. Eventually, it became a co-sponsor.

“CNA, as fierce and progressive as they are, gave the idea a real boost,” said Kuehl, now a Los Angeles County supervisor. Two of her bills passed through the legislature, but both were vetoed by Schwarzenegger.

Kuehl doesn’t buy the argument that the union’s in-your-face strategies may hurt their chances of passing single-payer later. Union members made nasty comments about Schwarzenegger at their rallies and that didn’t hurt the CNA’s reputation, she said.

Madrid, the Republican political consultant in Sacramento, says the CNA’s aggressive advocacy for a single-payer health system reflects the intense political polarization seen around the country right now—as well as conflicts among members of left-leaning causes.

More mainstream Democrats, including Assembly Speaker Rendon—the recipient of online death threats say the legislature’s priority is to defend California against a GOP-proposed repeal of the Affordable Care Act and massive cuts to Medicaid, the state and federal health plan for the poor.

Rendon also said the single-payer bill, although approved by the state Senate, was “woefully incomplete” and needed to be recast. Among other problems, it carried a $400 billion annual price tag, according to an analysis by the state Senate Appropriations Committee.

But the CNA sees an opportunity for broader change and believes single-payer can move forward even as the state fights the Republican proposals in Washington.

If the single-payer bill stays idle in the legislature this year, the group vows to try again next year, making it a campaign issue in the 2018 elections.

“The best way to fight the GOP is to have an alternative,” Lighty said.

California Healthline correspondent Ana B. Ibarra contributed to this report.

This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation. KHN’s coverage in California is funded in part by Blue Shield of California Foundation.