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Backroom Fix: How Eight Democrats Denied Health Plans to Hundreds of Thousands of Californians

Jim Araby was dead asleep when his cell phone rang at 6 a.m. last June. Until then the labor activist had been enjoying an idyllic family vacation in Guerneville, on Sonoma County’s Russian River. But the number appearing on his phone told him the call was from Sacramento, suggesting bad news. The voice he now heard confirmed it.

“Can you get here?” a union colleague asked. “We need you.”

Araby, a regional director of the United Food and Commercial Workers, listened in dismay as he learned that Assembly Bill 880, which more than half a dozen community groups and unions had supported, and which had looked certain to land on top of Jerry Brown’s in-box, was suddenly an endangered species.

Introduced by Jimmy Gomez (D-Los Angeles), AB 880 was designed to close a legal loophole in the new Affordable Care Act (ACA, or “Obamacare”). Without the bill, large employers could get around a requirement to provide their full-time workers with health care by cutting their hours enough to make them part-time. The measure would impose penalties on companies with 500 or more employees that cut work hours and eliminated benefits in response to ACA – and in the process dumped their workers on California’s taxpayer-funded Medi-Cal program. It was a bill that, according to the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education, could potentially benefit at least 310,000 Californians.

According to Anthony Wright, executive director for Health Access California, a statewide health care consumer advocacy coalition, AB 880 was “first and foremost a way of getting people coverage. This was a commonsense policy — it expanded access to coverage, leveled the playing field for employers and increased funding to improve the health care system we all rely on.”

But now the bill, which required two-thirds passage in the Assembly and Senate, was in deep trouble. What left Araby incredulous wasn’t the predictable Republican opposition. The Democrats, who were carrying AB 880, owned a supermajority in both houses of the legislature. And even though the bill had made the California Chamber of Commerce’s dreaded Job Killer list, this had seemed to be one battle the Chamber would lose.

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Backroom Fix: How Eight Democrats Denied Health Plans to Hundreds of Thousands of Californians

Jim Araby was dead asleep when his cell phone rang at 6 a.m. last June. Until then the labor activist had been enjoying an idyllic family vacation in Guerneville, on Sonoma County’s Russian River. But the number appearing on his phone told him the call was from Sacramento, suggesting bad news. The voice he now heard confirmed it.

“Can you get here?” a union colleague asked. “We need you.”

Araby, a regional director of the United Food and Commercial Workers, listened in dismay as he learned that Assembly Bill 880, which more than half a dozen community groups and unions had supported, and which had looked certain to land on top of Jerry Brown’s in-box, was suddenly an endangered species.

Introduced by Jimmy Gomez (D-Los Angeles), AB 880 was designed to close a legal loophole in the new Affordable Care Act (ACA, or “Obamacare”). Without the bill, large employers could get around a requirement to provide their full-time workers with health care by cutting their hours enough to make them part-time. The measure would impose penalties on companies with 500 or more employees that cut work hours and eliminated benefits in response to ACA – and in the process dumped their workers on California’s taxpayer-funded Medi-Cal program. It was a bill that, according to the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education, could potentially benefit at least 310,000 Californians.

According to Anthony Wright, executive director for Health Access California, a statewide health care consumer advocacy coalition, AB 880 was “first and foremost a way of getting people coverage. This was a commonsense policy — it expanded access to coverage, leveled the playing field for employers and increased funding to improve the health care system we all rely on.”

But now the bill, which required two-thirds passage in the Assembly and Senate, was in deep trouble. What left Araby incredulous wasn’t the predictable Republican opposition. The Democrats, who were carrying AB 880, owned a supermajority in both houses of the legislature. And even though the bill had made the California Chamber of Commerce’s dreaded Job Killer list, this had seemed to be one battle the Chamber would lose.

Although failure to enact AB 880 would not result in workers who were already enrolled in Medi-Cal losing that coverage, its passage would have prodded large companies to provide medical care for those low-income workers and their families who were not on Medi-Cal. It would have also helped correct an inequity by requiring such companies – and not taxpayers – to shoulder the burden of their employees’ health care. Defeat of AB 880 would allow large companies to cut the hours – and thus, incomes — of their most vulnerable employees.

Araby, wearing board shorts and a tank top, hopped into his Ford Fusion and sped to Sacramento, gnawed by the news that his bill wasn’t being killed by Republicans or the Chamber – not directly, at least. Instead, it was being sabotaged from within by eight Democrats.

Two and a half hours later, Araby pulled several of the eight off the Assembly floor and lobbied for their votes. In vain: On June 27, 2013, the California Assembly voted 46-27 to approve AB 880 – exactly eight votes short of the required 54 Yes votes. “Cal Chamber Stops Job Killer on Assembly Floor,” crowed a California Chamber of Commerce press release the next day.

The eight Democrats who helped defeat AB 880 included Fresno’s Henry Perea, the leader of a somewhat nebulous group known as the Assembly Moderate Caucus. Perea abstained on the final vote but worked behind the scenes to turn Democrats against the bill. His compatriots included four lawmakers who together had received more than $549,000 in contributions and independent expenditures from the California Chamber of Commerce’s political action committees. The money had rolled in just before their freshmen victories in the 2012 election. Three of the four – Tom Daly of Anaheim, Adam Gray of Merced and Cheryl Brown of San Bernardino — voted No on AB 880. Raul Bocanegra of Pacoima abstained – a passive gesture that would prove just as effective as a No vote. Three other Democrats also abstained – Rudy Salas of Bakersfield, Steve Fox of Lancaster and Al Muratsuchi of Torrance. (None of the eight responded to interview requests for this article.)

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