SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - A California legislative committee on Wednesday narrowly approved a bill that would give state officials the power to reject proposed health insurance rate increases, but even some supporters say it will need major changes if it is to survive.
The Senate Health Committee voted 5-3 along party lines to advance the bill, AB52, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed. It will go before another committee before coming to the full Senate.
The debate has implications across the United States. California regulations have national influence and the state, home to one in eight Americans, makes up 11 percent of the national market for those with health insurance through an employer and 15 percent of those with individual coverage.
Groups representing insurers, doctors and hospitals oppose the bill.
Backers include organized labor, advocates for low-income Californians and state Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, a Democrat. Jones' office would gain new leverage over health insurance rates if the bill passes and Gov. Jerry Brown, also a Democrat, signs it.
The bill faced an end-of-the-week deadline for committee approval, but its fate is uncertain. It has drawn no substantive Republican support and Democratic backing is wobbly amid strong lobbying by the politically influential opponents.
The committee's chairman, Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-Baldwin Park, pushed for significant changes to the bill before he would support it, but he voted for the measure Wednesday to keep it alive while negotiations over amendments continue.
"While I have had some concerns on your bill, I do support regulation," Hernandez said.
He said he wants amendments to address concerns about political influence in decision making, whether outside parties could intervene in a rate case, identifying the medical costs that are built into insurance rates, and other matters before he will fully support the bill.
Sen. Tony Strickland, a Thousand Oaks Republican, called the bill deeply flawed and rattled off a list of concerns he had with the claims of backers. He said insurers have been accused of gouging the public with high rates, but that they have relatively low profit rates compared to pharmaceutical and medical device companies. Those medical cost drivers, he said, made a purely regulatory approach misguided.
"The author and sponsor have said much about this bill, but reality does not square with some of the rhetoric," Strickland said.