Politics & Government

Hospital official speaks for Schwarzenegger

SACRAMENTO -- Gov. Schwarzenegger turned over the microphone for his radio address recently to someone who is neither a member of his administration nor an elected public official -- Catholic Healthcare West President Lloyd Dean.

Dean used the one- to two-minute radio address to applaud the governor for creating a health-care plan that "would insure everyone, reduce costs, increase accountability, reward wellness and prevention, and improve the quality of care."

Dean's appearance also provided an opportunity to pitch Catholic Healthcare West as the state's "largest provider of hospital services" which "views access to health care as a fundamental right."

For years, politicians have used public funds to produce weekly audio clips for statewide distribution.

But recent broadcasts have raised questions about whether special interests are becoming a little too involved.

On the same day that Dean spoke, Assembly Member Mary Hayashi presented the Assembly Democrats' weekly radio address, touting a bill sponsored by the California Dental Association. The association spent nearly $100,000 last year to help her win election.

Lew Uhler, president of the National Tax Limitation Committee, bristled at the notion of publicly financed radio addresses generally.

"To use taxpayer money to lobby and propagandize, I think, is an absolute scandal," he said.

Uhler was even more upset by Dean substituting for the governor.

"This is truly advancing the interest of a private industry, and a private company, whether it's profit or nonprofit," Uhler said.

Aaron McLear, Schwarzenegger's spokesman, said the governor's radio addresses are consistent with Schwarzenegger's commitment to bring government to the people.

This year's scripts have targeted Schwarzenegger's legislative agenda, the state budget, wildfires, farm legislation, gang violence, prison needs and other issues. Occasionally, the address is used as a soapbox to applaud Earth Day, for example, or the State Fair.

McLear said the pinch-hitting by Dean signals to voters that the governor's fight to expand health care for the uninsured has broad-based support.

"I think it adds another dynamic to the address to have not just the governor each week, but various stakeholders who have an interest in these issues," McLear said.

Besides Dean, five other guest speakers have substituted for Schwarzenegger this year -- three of whom are not elected officials. They have spotlighted issues ranging from water storage to medical insurance premiums for small businesses, records show.

Schwarzenegger's $12 billion-a-year universal health-care proposal calls for employers to spend 4% of their payroll on health care, hospitals to contribute 4% of their revenues, and doctors to chip in 2% of their revenues.

Wade Rose, a vice president of Catholic Healthcare West, estimated this month that Schwarzenegger's health-care proposal could benefit the company by $157 million a year.

Rather than self-promotion, Dean's comments about Catholic Healthcare West in the radio address were meant simply to identify him as a credible source to listeners, McLear said.

"It's not just someone who has a hospital," McLear said. "It's someone who has the largest hospital chain. And that's why, for us, that makes his support even that much more significant." Dean, through a spokesman, declined an interview request Friday.

Catholic Healthcare West, a nonprofit group, has not been a Schwarzenegger donor but contributed about $50,000 toward passage of infrastructure bonds backed by the governor in 2006, records show.

Anthony Wright, director of Health Access California, a statewide health-care consumer advocacy coalition, said Dean appeared with the governor recently at a separate news conference to tout a wide range of groups supporting his health-care plan.

"That was appropriate," Wright said of the news conference. "But for a public official to spotlight and give air time to a private corporation does raise questions, even if it's toward a goal that we agree with, which is health-care reform."

"To be fair," Wright added, "Catholic Healthcare West has been a positive participant in health-care reform discussions. At the same time, it's not like they don't have their own issues with regard to how, in the past, they've treated the uninsured."

Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said pinch-hitting by a hospital official to discuss health care issues does not offend him.

"Sometimes people get tired of hearing the same people week after week," he said. "If somebody can come on and say, 'You know, the governor's doing a great job in this area, we should be supporting him' -- I guess I don't have much of a problem with that."

Like Schwarzenegger, Assembly Democrats for years have distributed partisan radio addresses to dozens of stations throughout California. The number of listeners is unknown.

Hayashi, D-Castro Valley, said she chose Assembly Bill 834 for her radio address because she is proud of the measure, which seeks to expand an existing program that provides dental education and urgent treatment to needy youth.

AB 834 would fill a critical need in California, where more than 600,000 low-income children are eligible for treatment but don't receive it, she said.