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Health Bills Compete With Gov.'s Plan

By Trip Jennings
Copyright 2008 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Capitol Bureau
    SANTA FE— Gov. Bill Richardson might need some powerful medicine to keep his big health care proposal alive.
    Richardson's plan, called the Health Solutions Act, garnered the signatures of just three Democratic co-sponsors on Wednesday when it was introduced in the 70-member chamber.
    They were surely notable signatures: the House speaker, House majority leader and the Democratic caucus chair. But the number of co-sponsors signing onto a bill usually indicates its level of support.
    Two competing health care proposals introduced this week have attracted much broader support in the House. The bill competing most directly with the governor's plan bore about 30 signatures.
    Richardson's proposal, House Bill 62, would require every New Mexican to have some sort of health coverage; establish a powerful new authority to control health care costs and improve efficiency; and prevent insurance companies from rejecting anyone for medical reasons.
    The main competing proposal, House Bill 214, would create a single-payer health care system in New Mexico. The governor has already said he would veto that measure.
    A second competing proposal, House Bill 147, is less encompassing, but changes a key ingredient in the governor's health care plan. That attracted the signaturees of nearly two dozen House Democratic lawmakers upon its introduction.
    The indications of support for the competing proposals come as New Mexico's legislators debate how to accomplish health care reform and pay for it, several lawmakers said.
    The debate will boil down to a few key questions, said House Majority Leader W. Ken Martinez, D-Grants, who supports the governor's plan. Those questions include: Who gets to appoint a proposed new health care authority that will manage the system; whether the state should go with a single-payer system or go with more private-sector involvement.
    "The governor and his staff have a lot of work to pull through the Health Solutions Act," Martinez said of the governor's proposal. "It will be interesting to see if we can get there."
    When asked Thursday morning if the shortfall of sponsors indicated a lack of support for his plan within the House Democratic majority, Richardson shrugged and shook his head, appearing to say no.
    The Democratic governor, just returned from the presidential campaign trail, has repeatedly said health care reform is his No. 1 priority this year and has exhorted state lawmakers to act now and not later.
    "The easy thing to do is to say it's too difficult to tackle in a 30-day session," Richardson told a crowd of hundreds at the Governor's Prayer Breakfast on Thursday in Santa Fe.
    "We've been preparing for this a long time," the governor said, reiterating his point that the Legislature can accomplish his stated goal of expanding health care coverage to every New Mexican with action during the 30-day legislative session.
    House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, an important Richardson ally, said the governor's proposal, carried by Rep. John Heaton, D-Carlsbad, stands as good a shot as any other proposal.
    "I don't know if Rep. Heaton went around getting as many signatures as the sponsors of the other bills did," Lujan said.
    Heaton said the governor's proposal has the best chance of accomplishing the most good because it tries to change an already existing system.
    "The reality is that we have a system in place," Heaton said of the current health care system. "That system is not perfect, but we can improve it."
    But there are sticking points in the governor's plan, other lawmakers said.
    A new state health care authority would manage New Mexico's health care system. Under Richardson's plan, the governor would appoint most of its members.
    That is of great concern to legislators.
    "We work well with this governor," said Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, who has signed onto the two competing proposals. "But what happens if we get a different sort of governor?"
    "If we could look at possible changes so more of the Democratic House would support it, we could move it," Stewart said of the governor's bill.
    Several House lawmakers cited a similar wariness about giving away too much legislative power to the governor and have signed onto to the competing proposal dealing with the health care authority issue, House Bill 147, carried by Rep. Danice Picraux, D-Albuquerque.
    They include the powerful Rep. Luciano "Lucky" Varela, D-Santa Fe, and Rep. Debbie Rodella, D-Española, chairwoman of the House Business and Industry Committee.
    "I want the Legislature to have a hand in appointing members," Rodella said Thursday in explaining why she supports Picraux's proposal.
    Picraux's bill would require five members appointed by the governor and subject to confirmation in the Senate and five members appointed by the Legislative Council.
    It is unclear from the bill who would appoint the 11th member.
    But Heaton said the proposed health care authority is an executive function, not a legislative one.
    "The Legislature meets for 30 days and 60 days and it has no other authority," Heaton said.