Is Single Payer Becoming a Litmus Test for Democrats?

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to the California Nurses Association conference in San Francisco.  (Scott Shafer/KQED)

The race for governor heated up a notch in San Francisco Friday morning, as Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom waded into the debate over creating a government-run or single-payer health care system in California, prompting a caustic response from his chief Democratic opponent.

Newsom reveled in swooning applause at the California Nurses Association national conference, saying it was time to "dust off" Senate Bill 562, which is currently stuck in the Assembly, and vote on it.

"We don't need to wait around" for Congress to act, Newsom said, referring to "Medicare for All" legislation sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders. He added, "We don’t do that. That’s not who we are."

When asked by reporters afterward if he supports SB 562, Newsom refined his response.

"I 100 percent support moving this process along, getting this debate going again and addressing the concerns," he said, adding he also had concerns about financing and other issues.

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That prompted the campaign of former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is running second to Newsom in most polls for the 2018 gubernatorial race, to pounce.

Campaign spokesman Luis Vizcaino said Newsom was flip-flopping.

"This is an outrageous parsing of words when millions of people are at risk of losing their health care," Vizcaino said in a written statement. "Newsom is a good politician who knows how to parse words, but parsing will not deliver health care to anyone."

Talking with KQED later, Newsom said of SB 562, "It’s not done but that doesn’t mean you walk away from it. You shape it. Everyone up there (in Sacramento) acts like they’re bystanders. Which is remarkable."

The lieutenant governor acknowledged there are legitimate questions about single-payer health care, "so let’s answer them as opposed to walk away and act like it's bigger than we are."

Single-payer health care has long been the goal of progressive Democrats in California. In 2006 and 2008, the Legislature passed bills to create such a system here, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed both of them.

This time around, the nurses union seems intent on not letting this moment slip away. After the state Senate passed SB 562 by Los Angeles Sen. Ricardo Lara, the bill hit a wall.

In June, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon declared SB 562 "woefully incomplete" and announced he was holding the bill back until next year. The reaction was furious. A cartoon depicting a bear with a knife in its back went viral -- the knife was labeled "Rendon."

Supporters of single payer health care released this cartoon depicting Speaker Rendon as a traitor to their cause.

Protesters converged outside Rendon's office at the state Capitol. Some held signs reading “Inaction Equals Death,” others chanting “Rendon, Rendon, shame on you. Action now on 562." Rendon's said he and his family even received death threats.

Shortly after that, Rendon announced that a Select Committee he appointed in March would hold public hearings on health care, universal coverage and a single-payer system. But the nurses union isn't buying it.

"We’re concerned the goal may be to slow down the process and the momentum, as opposed to letting the bill go though the normal process," said Don Nielsen, director of government relations for the California Nurses Association. "Our fear is that (Rendon) is trying to dilute the effect nurses have had on this process."

Added nurses union executive director RoseAnn DeMoro, "Rendon is holding back health care access. I’m convinced Jerry (Brown) will sign the bill. He’s holding the bill back using czarlike powers. Let the Assembly vote."

In March, Brown sounded skeptical about the single-payer plan in a conversation with reporters. "Where do you get the extra money?" Brown asked. “This is the whole question. How do you do that?”

As Democrats regroup after their crushing loss in the 2016 election, supporters of single payer see it as the key part of a populist message that draws a clear distinction with Republicans. Problem is, it's a distinction not all Democrats are ready to join.

"This is the litmus test," the CNA's Nielsen said. "This is as serious for grass-roots Democrats as abortion is for Republicans."

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