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Capital NY: For lawmakers, health initiatives are a long game

By Dan Goldberg, Capital New York, 12/23/14

New York’s first press conference on a gay rights bill took place in 1971, said Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, who attended as a freshman legislator. It was held in the legislative library in Albany and there were so few attendees that “nobody had to tell us to shush,” he recalled.

It was two years after the Stonewall riots and homosexual acts were still criminal in New York City. The bill, introduced by then-Assemblyman William Passannante, failed, 84-61, that year, and Passannante’s colleagues in the Assembly questioned the lawmaker’s own sexual orientation for deigning to bring it up.

Advocates kept pushing, though, and 31 years later, a gay rights bill became law, passed by a Republican Senate and signed by a Republican governor.

Legislators like Gottfried keep stories such as that in mind when pushing bills that seem to have little chance in the current political environment.

Whether it’s gay marriage, civil rights, universal health care, medical or recreational marijuana, ideas that at one time seem far-fetched often become mainstream as years go by, which is why they say the importance of last week’s hearings on decriminalizing marijuana and single-payer health insurance should not be measured by their 2015 vote count.

“There are people who think this bill should immediately become law and say ‘of course we will pass this in 2015.’ I’m here to say I don’t actually think that is that likely,” said Liz Krueger, dampening expectations as she opened her hearing last Wednesday on decriminalizing marijuana. “I think this bill is still going to be part of a broader discussion without an immediate outcome, which I recognize is the process we need to go through.”

Gottfried, too, takes a long view about what is possible.

He carried a medical marijuana bill for 17 years before it was passed during the last legislative session.

Gottfried, chairman of the Assembly health committee, has been pushing universal health care even longer, carrying a version of that bill since 1992, but the fight in New York for a single-payer system dates back to 1915, when Assemblyman Al Smith introduced the first version.

But lately, Gottfried said, there is new momentum. The Affordable Care Act spurred a national debate on the government’s role in health care and gave the push for government-coverage new life because of what advocates believe are deficiencies in President Obama’s signature law.

“People have seen that model and know it doesn’t work,” said Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat. “The fundamental flaw of the Affordable Care Act is it leaves us in the hands of the insurance companies. We see rising premiums, skyrocketing deductibles, employers shifting more of the costs to the workers or dropping coverage entirely.”

At Gottfried’s hearing at N.Y.U. last week, one of six being held around the state on the single-payer system, about 80 people signed up to testify, more than for any hearing Gottfried has held as leader of the health committee, he said.

Over the years, Gottfried’s bill has picked up support from a handful of physicians, patients and left-leaning government groups as well as health care union 1199 SEIU and the New York State Nurses Association.

Anne Bové, NYSNA secretary, “strongly urge(d) the passage of this very important legislation.”

That is unlikely to happen in 2015, but NYSNA spokesman Carl Ginsburg said these hearings are an effort “to move the conversation and engage the public.”

“The U.S. deserves a first-rate health care system for everyone,” he said.

Other seemingly long-shot bills have eventually become law.

“When I put in the first (Assembly) bill for gay marriage in 2003, nobody thought that in eight years it’d be signed into law,” Gottfried said.

If carrying a health bill for 23 years without result seems futile, Gottfried is happy to point out to longer fights that ultimately paid off.

“Women’s right to vote, abolition of slavery, all sorts of things,” he said.