Albany’s checklist of health care bills

Besides single-payer health care, several other health care issues are expected to be at the top of the agenda.
Besides single-payer health care, several other health care issues are expected to be at the top of the agenda.
Kim Wilson/Shutterstock.
Besides single-payer health care, several other health care issues are expected to be at the top of the agenda.

Albany’s checklist of health care bills

From codifying Roe v. Wade to legalizing recreational marijuana.
December 10, 2018

Single-payer health care may be one of the biggest debates in Albany in 2019, but it’s just one of a number of high-profile issues dealing with medical matters. Here are summaries of several health care issues expected to be at the top of the agenda.

✓ Reproductive Health Act

Although the Reproductive Health Act has passed in the Assembly the past two years, it has yet to come up for a vote in the state Senate. A priority for many Democrats in the chamber – and, importantly, for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who said he wants it done in January – the bill would update the state’s abortion laws and codify federal protections into state law. Although abortion rights are guaranteed under the landmark Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision, the laws on the books in New York were passed in 1970, three years before that decision. Although the state’s laws were considered progressive at the time, they have not been updated since. Democrats have argued that if a bloc of conservative judges on the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, abortion rights in the state would revert back to those passed in 1970. State Sen. Gustavo Rivera told City & State that he hopes the legislation will be addressed early in the upcoming session now that it has the votes to pass. “I would be willing to move that very quickly because I believe that it is very important, particularly with what’s happening on the national level,” said Rivera, who is likely to be named chairman of the state Senate Committee on Health.

✓ Single-payer health care

Perhaps the most expansive and expensive item on Democratic lawmakers’ agenda – and among the most controversial – is the New York Health Act, which would establish a single-payer health care system in the state and is estimated to cost $139 billion in 2022. Many incoming lawmakers campaigned on the promise that they would get it done, but even if it does pass, massive changes likely won’t happen right away. A single-payer system means that a single entity covers the cost of all health care, which is still delivered by private or nonprofit providers. Everyone pays into a single plan run by the government, which in turn is the only provider of coverage paying claims. Assemblyman Richard Gottfried’s bill has proposed one public option and a ban on the sale of private insurance unless it offers additional coverage not included in the state plan. One major obstacle the New York Health Act must overcome is a less than enthusiastic governor. Although Gov. Andrew Cuomo has expressed support for single-payer health care as a concept, he has repeatedly said that it would be better implemented at the national level. Other critics have raised concerns about the cost, although a study performed by the Rand Corp. that found total health care spending could be lower under the New York Health Act than if the status quo were to continue.

✓ Recreational and medical marijuana

The state has been slowly inching closer to legalizing recreational marijuana. Most notably, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been coming around on the issue. Although he used to consider marijuana a “gateway drug,” the Cuomo administration this year released a report in favor of legalization, set up a working group to draft legislation and hosted a series of listening sessions across that state to gain public input. Although legislation to legalize the drug has never passed either chamber, public support has grown substantially, and candidates, such as former gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, campaigned on the promise of legalization. The state Legislature now appears poised to pass legislation that would regulate and tax marijuana.

However, the future of the state’s existing medical marijuana program remains in limbo. Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, who sponsored the bill creating the medical marijuana program and has been one of its strongest advocates, said that in the coming session, strengthening and expanding the program will be “a major focus,” as will ensuring that it continues to run smoothly alongside potential recreational legalization. “So how we do that, I don’t know yet. But I know there is a lot of concern and brainpower being focused on it,” Gottfried told City & State. State Sen. Gustavo Rivera said he hopes that recreational legalization would also open the door for additional research to increase and expand the drug’s medical efficacy.

✓​​​​​​​ Opioid epidemic

As the opioid epidemic continues to take lives across the state, state Sen. Gustavo Rivera told City & State that the state Senate intends to resume its work with the Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction – first created in 2014 – and that state Senate Republicans could participate as well. When led by Republicans, the task force did not include Democrats. Additionally, Rivera said that the state Legislature will continue to explore the concept of harm reduction. The idea accepts that drug use will always be a part of society, but that society can take steps to cut down on the negative consequences of drugs. Namely, Rivera hopes to have productive conversations about a bill he sponsors to create safe injection sites, a highly controversial proposal to create legal locations where illegal drug users can get high in a supervised environment. “I believe that there is plenty of evidence-based programs that can be expanded and be created,” Rivera said. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio championed a pilot program to open four such sites in the city, but the idea still faces major hurdles.

✓​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ Nurse staffing ratios

The issue of nurse staffing levels within hospitals has long been a priority of the New York State Nurses Association, a powerful union in the state. However, a bill on the subject has never passed the state Senate and rarely passes the Assembly. The main component of the bill would create a set ratio of patients per nurse to ensure that nurses are not overworked by caring for too many people, and to ensure that patients are receiving adequate care. However, other powerful interests have also opposed the legislation, including business groups and hospitals, who argue that while the bill addresses real problems with how care is administered, nurse staffing ratios are the wrong remedy. Like many pieces of legislation that have languished under Republican control of the state Senate, Democratic control of the chamber could give the bill a better chance to become law. “We’ve passed it before and I trust we will do it again,” said Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, who has long been a supporter of nurse staffing ratios. “And it’s very exciting that we now have a shot at having that pass the state Senate.”

RELATED: Has single-payer health care’s time finally come?

Rebecca C. Lewis
is a staff reporter at City & State.
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