One year into the coronavirus pandemic, Arizona has suffered greatly, but the chance for vaccination gives us some hope. The sheer scale of the sickness – over 800,000 cases in our state, resulting in over 56,000 people hospitalized, and more than 15,000 dead – has revealed some shortcomings in our public health system, in and many cases it has made those shortcomings worse.
As a state senator, I worked with my fellow legislators and with Healthcare Rising Arizona to address those shortcomings. We offered three bills to chart out improvements in our health care system, addressing both access to care and the cost of care, as well as taking steps to safeguard the health and safety of the healthcare professionals who have worked hard for a solid year of stress and struggle.
I am sorry to report that even with the coronavirus pandemic raging, Arizona’s Legislature failed to hold a single hearing on one of the three urgent bills we championed. Even more worrisome, neither health committee passed a bill related to the pandemic. Last week, the deadline for holding hearings on bills passed.
The three bills that we introduced in Arizona’s Legislature can make a real difference in people’s lives.
First off, over this past year, Arizona health care workers have been heroes. They need protective equipment, and shouldn’t have to pay for it out of their own pockets. They deserve paid sick time if they get infected. They deserve hazard pay for what they’ve been through and the tremendous sacrifices they’ve made.
The Healthcare Heroes Bill of Rights (HB2842), sponsored by Rep. Melody Hernandez, D-Tempe, myself and 17 others, would have done just that. Melody is an emergency medical technician and knows what health care workers have been through over the past year. Her bill would protect health care workers who perform Covid essential functions by providing them with personal protective equipment, hazard pay, whistleblower protections, and paid sick leave for any worker who cannot work due to a Covid diagnosis. Nineteen legislators have already signed on in support of the bill.
Medical debt is also a huge issue for hundreds of thousands of Arizona families. The bill that I offered, the Reduce Medical Debt Act (SB1796), would protect consumers who are struggling with medical debt. The legislation shields homes and most vehicles from seizure by debt collectors, and increases the amount of time before a medical debt can show up on a consumer’s credit report.
The third bill we offered would ensure that no one is denied care because of a pre-existing condition or an annual or lifetime cap on the cost of care. People with employer-provided health insurance do not have this worry, but Arizonans who have bought the “short-term limited duration” plans that are legal in this state do. Imagine paying your health insurance premium every month, and then learning only after you get sick that your plan doesn’t cover the care you need.
That’s why the Healthcare Bill of Rights (HB2739), sponsored by Rep. Andrea Dalessandro, D-Green Valley, ensures that health insurance plans cannot reject patients with so-called pre-existing conditions, or charge them unaffordable rates for that coverage. These protections extend to the so-called “short-term limited duration,” requires all plans sold in Arizona to offer essential medical benefits, and bans annual or lifetime caps on coverage.
We offered these bills in the spirit of advancing public health and looking out for Arizona families. Sadly, Republicans refused to even hold a hearing on even one of these bills. But there’s still hope, because Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, or Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, could bring any of these bills to the floor of the House or Senate.
I hope they do.
Sen. Juan Mendez of Tempe, a Democrat, represents Legislative District 26.