Schwarzenegger backs mandatory health insurance, calls for more U.S. aid

WASHINGTON -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday called on Congress to pass a health care overhaul that would require all Americans to carry insurance, but he warned that California will get stuck with a bill of more than $1 billion a year for expanding Medicaid if the federal government doesn't provide more money to the states.

The governor said Congress should pass a plan "quickly, thoughtfully and, most important, successfully." And he said health care should not be a partisan issue, as it has become in Washington.

In a letter to congressional leaders, Schwarzenegger offered his state as a model for change.

He said the federal government could save up to $54 billion over 10 years by following California's lead in approving changes for medical liability, noting that the state's doctors have some of the lowest malpractice rates in the country.

And he said California has saved $86 billion and more than a million lives since launching its anti-tobacco efforts in 1989.

"I always tell people they do not need to be in Washington to impact health reform," the governor said. "It starts at home with healthier eating habits and regular exercise."

As the full House and Senate prepare to debate competing health care bills, Schwarzenegger weighed in on the so-called "individual mandate," a controversial plan that would require everyone -- including healthy young adults -- to purchase insurance. He said the individual mandate should be combined with public subsidies to help lower-income people afford insurance.

"Without an enforceable individual mandate, people will continue to voluntarily forgo coverage, shifting uncompensated costs to insured individuals," Schwarzenegger said.

Unless Congress pays for all of its costs, Schwarzenegger said, a mandatory expansion of Medicaid "will only be an empty promise of health insurance coverage" and will force California and other states to make cuts in education, public safety and elsewhere.

If Congress does not provide full funding for new federal mandates, Schwarzenegger said, the federal government should give states more power to set benefits and determine eligibility. And he suggested that Congress continue helping the states with medical care costs as it did using stimulus money, even after the stimulus program expires.

The governor noted that he has been a longtime supporter of a comprehensive health care overhaul, recalling how he participated in a regional health care town hall with President Barack Obama last spring. He said pending bills in both the House and Senate "include significant policy reforms" that will help control medical costs and fix a broken health-care system.

The White House is pleased to have the support of Schwarzenegger and any other Republicans in its high-stakes fight, which has largely broken down along party lines on Capitol Hill.

"A broad coalition of Democrats, Republicans and independents recognize the urgent need for health insurance reform and we welcome Governor Schwarzenegger's support for making reform a reality," said White House spokesman Adam Abrams.

While nearly all Republicans in Washington oppose Obama's plan to expand health care coverage, White House aides were quick to note earlier this month that the president has backing from the likes of Schwarzenegger, former Senate Republican leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, former health and human services secretary Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin and Republican-turned-independent New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

And Obama himself gave a pat on the back to Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe after she broke ranks with her party and voted with Democrats to pass a health care plan in the Senate Finance Committee.