Lawsuit alleges Livermore City Council deliberately undermined measure to lower health care costs

Livermore Mayor John Marchand sought assurances from health care providers who opposed a ballot measure limiting health care costs while composing the initiative's ballot question

During a Livermore City Council meeting last month to approve the placing of an initiative on the November ballot that could significantly lower health care costs for its residents, city officials deliberately created a ballot question to undermine the measure, according to a lawsuit filed Aug. 2 by the union supporting it.

In an extraordinary back and forth at the July 23 meeting in which Livermore councilmembers appeared to purposefully impart their own political agenda into the wording of the ballot question, Livermore Mayor John Marchand concluded several rounds of wordsmithing by asking opponents of the initiative, Stanford Health Care CEO Scott Gregerson and their attorney, Curt Kirschner, “Are we on the right track with this?”

It’s not the first time Stanford Health Care and other local providers have attempted to thwart the ballot measure backed by SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West. The measure seeks to limit the amount health care facilities in Livermore can charge patients to 15 percent above its actual costs. Providers like ValleyCare Hospital in Livermore, which is owned by Stanford Health Care, would be penalized for charging more than the 15 percent threshold with the overage refunded to the payer.

“We’ve got to make sure this doesn’t prevail.-Livermore Councilmember Bob Woerner’s comments July 23 are included in the SEIU-UHW lawsuit

The potential hit to Stanford Health Care’s bottom line precipitated their own lawsuit to invalidate the ballot measure last month. A state appeals court, however, denied their motion on July 11. Stanford Health Care CEO Gregerson, in a letter to the council, subsequently urged Livermore councilmembers to reject a ballot question proposed by its city attorney. Although Livermore City Attorney Jason Alcala disagreed that the ballot question merited revisions, an alternative was nonetheless composed for the council in advance of the July 23 meeting.

State election law requires that a ballot question–the passage appearing on the ballot that briefly describes the initiative–be true and impartial. It also forbids language that might “create prejudice, for or against the measure.”

But Livermore councilmembers were extremely transparent in their opposition of the ballot measure that occurred in open session. They continually injected proposed language intended to undermine the measure, even though, one councilmember noted the partisan language being proposed was a better fit for the city’s rebuttal argument that appears in the voter guide published by the Alameda County Registrar of Voter this fall.

“I think this is the most serious threat to our quality of life that I’ve ever seen. I think we got to do what we can do to defeat this, frankly,” said Councilmember Bob Woerner. He later added, “We’ve got to make sure this doesn’t prevail.”

The original ballot question proposed by the city attorney and supported by the union, states, “Shall the measure regulating and limiting the amounts that specified hospitals, medical clinics, and other health care providers in Livermore may charge patients for healht care services in Livermore be adopted?”

The council’s ballot question on July 23, inserted language that SEIU-UHW’s lawsuits argues is false and misleading.”Shall the measure requiring the City of Livermore to bear the cost of developing¬† and enforcing regulations limiting the amounts for medical services that specified hospitals, medical clinics, dentists, and other health care providers in Livermore may bill patients, or insurers, excluding Medicare and Medicaid, be adopted?”

The SEIU-UHW lawsuit asserts that Livermore councilmembers were bias in their inclusion of language in the ballot question. One example, is public testimony at the July 23 meeting by Stanford Health Care’s attorney urging the council to includes phrasing that the measure excludes Medicare and Medicaid patients. The lawsuit also argues the council-approved ballot measure is patently false.

According to the lawsuit, the ballot measure does not create a new government bureaucracy as some councilmembers asserted during the public meeting. “The ballot question, as adopted, is a partisan statement against the Initiative expressing the animus and anti-regulatory sentiment expressed by the Mayor, City Council, and other opponents during the meeting,” according to the lawsuit. “As Mayor Marchand stated, ‘it’s like more government regulation which we don’t need.'”

Palo Alto, and possibly Emeryville, voters will also have similar intiatives on the ballot this fall to regulate health care costs in their respecitive cities.

Voters in Alameda recently faced a battle of their own over the wording of a controversial ballot measure that somewhat echoes Livermore–at least, on its face.

The lawsuit hoped to block the Alameda City Council’s ballot question for a rent stabilziation charter amendement measure backed by landords from appearing on the November ballot. Its focus, however, stated an argument that some facts about the initiative were excluded from the question.

An Alameda County Superior Court judge last week denied a petition to remove the council-approved question from the ballot.

The argument in Livermore, though, appears to focus on willful intent by the City Council, through their public comments beforehand, to undermine the proposed initiative, in addition, to the inclusion of false and misleading information.

Meanwhile, time is quickly running out for the measure’s proponents. The deadline for finalizing ballot language in time for the November General Election is Aug. 27.

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