San Francisco’s local public health care program got a dose of praise today from state and national labor leaders calling for similar reform nationwide.

Healthy San Francisco began in 2007 as a result of initiatives by Mayor Gavin Newsom and former Supervisor Tom Ammiano, now a state assemblyman. The program, while not insurance, provides more affordable health care options for uninsured residents through a network of local hospitals and clinics.

More than 45,000 of the estimated 60,000 uninsured city residents have since signed up for the program, according to the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

Newsom was joined at a City Hall news conference this morning by national AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and California Labor Federation Executive Secretary-Treasurer Art Pulaski in an effort, they said, to tout San Francisco’s program as a model for national health care reform.

Newsom drew a parallel to the national debate by emphasizing Healthy San Francisco was a “public option” and “a strategy to provide health care, regardless of your ability to pay, regardless of preexisting conditions.”

Pulaski called Healthy San Francisco “an unqualified success” and “an example of why the public option is a necessity.” He added that recent cuts in state health programs were “going in the wrong direction.”

“What you have here with Healthy San Francisco, is where we want to go,” Sweeney said, calling the program “a really terrific public health care option.”

Sweeney said he’s been directly involved in the national health care reform effort.
“The next 30 days will go a long way to determine who wins this battle,” Sweeney said.
“If we fail to act,” he said, insurance premiums will increase, benefits will be further cut, and millions will go without insurance.

“The bottom line is people have to realize, it’s us against the giant insurance companies,” Sweeney said.

Newsom, who is running for governor of California, said more than 20 percent of state residents remain uninsured, the fourth highest amount of any state.

“So we have more to gain, and more to risk, in terms of this (national) debate,” Newsom said.

“Health care reform without a public option, is not reform,” he said.

Healthy San Francisco has not been without its critics, most visibly the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, which objected to the program’s provision requiring local businesses employing 20 or more people to chip in.

Under the plan, businesses must either provide insurance directly to their employees or pay in to Healthy San Francisco between $1.23 and $1.85 per hour per worker. The amount will increase to between $1.31 and $1.96 next year.

The Restaurant Association has sued the city, alleging the program violates a federal law regulating employee benefit plans.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the program’s spending mandate last year, but the Restaurant Association appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court has not yet announced whether it will hear the case.

According to Ken Jacobs of the University of California Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, recent studies by his group show Healthy San Francisco has not only not cost the city jobs but has been popular with many employers.

“There is no evidence” that it “has had any negative impact on employment,” Jacobs said.
“The San Francisco experiment is working, and it’s working well,” he said.

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