S.F.'s health plan under review

One of the cornerstones of San Francisco’s new program to provide affordable health care to all residents is now in the hands of a federal judge, who will rule on whether requiring The City’s employers to spend money on employee health care violates a law passed by Congress in 1974.

The $200 million program — which has gained national attention — aims to provide sliding scale health care to The City’s estimated 82,000 uninsured. An employer-spending mandate would contribute about

15 percent of the program’s total cost, according to city estimates.

In its suit, the Golden Gate Restaurant Association charges that the program violates the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, a federal law that regulates the management of employee benefits.

After hearing arguments on Friday, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey S. White said he would “get to work” on a ruling, since the employer spending mandate is scheduled to start on January 1. White said the outcome of the case would likely set legal precedent.

“It appears that San Francisco, as it is wont to do, is on the forefront again and is going to probably make new law — and that’s something the court has to balance,” White said at the end of the hearing. “On one hand, San Francisco’s right to take care of its employees, and on another, to try and fathom Congress’ intention when it passed ERISA.”

Despite the legal uncertainty of the employer-spending component, The City began implementing the ordinance — under the name Healthy San Francisco — in July by enrolling a limited number of patients. Full enrollment is scheduled for January.

Kevin Westlye, executive director of the restaurant association, said The City should have pursued a quarter-cent sales tax to cover the health care program’s costs, which would have spread the burden among all San Franciscans and not put the financial weight on the backs of business.

Mayor Gavin Newsom said Thursday that the mandated spending is not about the money, but is needed to prevent businesses from looking at The City’s new universal health program as an opportunity to stop providing health benefits.

If the judge rules against the spending mandate, The City will appeal, said Newsom, adding that although it would be “more challenging” to move forward with the Healthy San Francisco program, that he was committed to doing so.

beslinger@examiner.com

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