California Attorney General Rob Bonta, longtime Democratic State legislator, takes on his new role, known for pursuing a blatantly progressive agenda on criminal justice issues. He pushed for laws to abolish cash deposits and to ban for-profit prisons and detention centers. But Bonta also has remarkable healthcare experience, successfully advancing legislation to protect consumers from so-called surprise medical bills if accidentally treated by providers outside the network, and labeling environmental hazards like pollution as social justice issues.
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He was one of the Democratic legislators who led the charges against Big Soda in the California Capitol and pushed for taxes and warnings to be used to reduce the consumption of sugary beverages. Such proposals have so far stalled under the influence of the soda industry.
Bonta, 49, was a toddler when his family moved from the Philippines to California in 1971, where his parents worked as missionaries. His father, Warren Bonta, a native of California, worked for the state as a health officer for decades, building clinics to improve access to health care in rural and refugee communities. Rob Bonta’s first elected position was that of the Alameda Health Care District, where he oversaw local medical services.
Bonta was appointed by Governor Gavin Newsom that year, and in April succeeded former Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who was appointed Secretary of the US Department of Health by President Joe Biden. In the weeks since, Bonta has increased the number of lawyers working in the Department of Justice’s environmental justice bureau and created a Racial Justice Bureau, which he said will play a central role in ensuring equal access to health care for blacks and men Latinos ensure.
A graduate of Yale Law School, Bonta served nine years as an assistant city attorney in San Francisco before being elected to the State Assembly in 2012, representing Oakland and the East Bay. He was the first Filipino American to be elected to the California legislature and is now the first Filipino American to serve as the state’s chief law enforcement officer.
As attorney general, Bonta said he envisions a very different relationship with the Biden administration than his predecessor with the Trump administration. Becerra emerged as one of the harshest critics of former President Donald Trump during his tenure as the state’s chief constable, filing more than 120 lawsuits opposing the Trump administration’s policies on the environment and health, including leadership of the ongoing struggle to preserve the Affordable Care Act in its case in the US Supreme Court. Vice President Kamala Harris was once California attorney general, and Bonta said he saw a tremendous opportunity in working with the new administration on a more progressive agenda on issues such as Shaping reproductive health and universal, single-paying health care.
Bonta spoke to KHN about how health care would shape his agenda as attorney general. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Your predecessor made health care a priority. Will it be one of you?
That will be my top priority, and that was a top priority for me as a legislator. All along, for almost nine years, I was chairman of the congregation’s health committee or a member of the health committee. Before that, I served on a district board of health. My very first elected office I ever held was to ensure that we provide real access to quality, affordable health care for the community I served.
This is a really fundamental part of who I am and who my family is – our legacy and our values and what we stood for. I think health care is a right, not a privilege. It’s for everyone, not a few.
Q: You said you would prioritize racial justice. Do you think racism is a public health crisis?
Yes I do. Covid-19 exposed much of what was unfair and racist about our systems – the different effects we saw, the injustice we saw. And I think racism is not just a public health crisis – it is a public health crisis – it infects our economic system, it infects our criminal justice system, it infects all of our systems. And it has created a public health crisis.
Question: How does it look in healthcare? How does inequality show up?
It looks like there aren’t any different effects on color communities in healthcare. This race is not related to less access or quality and makes sure no one is left out. This can look like access to reproductive health care; this can look like access to real health insurance as opposed to bogus health insurance. It can seem like an unreasonable charge for a vaccine – vaccines are supposed to be free. We have been working on that lately too.
Q: Can you elaborate on that?
Through a joint investigation with the U.S. Health and Social Services and U.S. Attorneys, we found that vaccines, which should be made available to individuals free of charge under the law, are being raised against the vaccine.
The vaccine should be publicly available. And if that doesn’t happen, barriers will be erected in vulnerable communities to keep people from getting the vaccine we all need right now. That’s a problem. We issued a warning and reminded people of the laws that provide free vaccines to everyone under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention program.
Q: What areas of environmental health could you investigate?
The construction of huge warehouses. Some are being built in the Inland Empire. They are built next to or in disadvantaged communities. And all goods moving activities – and all emissions caused by the movement of goods – pose a threat and a risk to these communities.
Q: Like Amazon? The enterprise has been scrutinized for environmental damage related to its sprawling warehouses.
Yes. These warehouses have really created problems for disadvantaged communities in California. We expanded the Bureau of Environmental Justice to provide more resources and opportunities to tackle major polluters and protect communities that live at the intersection of poverty and pollution, who are forced to drink dirty water and use unhealthy air to breathe.
I see the role of the attorney general in advocating for everyday people who are abused or injured and neglected or mistreated, and generally protecting the little guy from the overwhelming odds and abuse of power of the big one.
We have more expertise in the environmental sector than in many other areas. And we want to use these tools – this authority, this influence, this power – to protect communities, often low-income communities, often colored communities hurt by polluters.
Q: Becerra filed a lawsuit and supported the legislation after mergers in the healthcare industry allegedly anti-competitive, a practice he argues is driving health prices up. Will you continue to pursue anti-competitive healthcare practices?
That is definitely a priority. This is an important tool in the toolbox that the California attorney general must clearly approve – or set or not approve terms for – any merger involving a nonprofit hospital.
The lens through which to see this is: How does it affect the patient? How does this affect access to quality care and care costs? And that is exactly why the Attorney General has this role of reviewing these proposed mergers with patients and communities in mind that may not have a voice in the merger.
Q: As the attorney general, do you support payer health care?
My engagement will be different. However, I co-wrote the single-payer bill a few years ago. And I was the co-author of this year’s payer bill, which MP Ash Kalra ran, which I think is no longer in motion. [Kalra has withdrawn the bill from consideration for this year.]
I support payer health care. I support universal health care. In my opinion, payer health care is one way to achieve this goal.
As the attorney general, I enforce the law. We don’t have a payer law in California. So I’m going to enforce the existing laws, which are very strict, to ensure that Californians have the most accessible, affordable, and high quality healthcare.
Q: The US Supreme Court has agreed to hear an abortion case in Mississippi that some say may jeopardize abortion rights at the state level. How could this affect abortion protection in California if it is upheld?
This is going to be a really important argument for reproductive freedom, and I think it’s important that California be involved in our leadership in this area. As the case is being briefed and prepared for consideration and argument in the US Supreme Court, I expect we will be very active in bringing arguments to the court to facilitate its conduct [the justices’] Thinking and their decisions.
Q: What will California’s relationship with the federal government be like?
I think the attitude and relationship between the federal administration and California over the past four years has been very different from the next four.
Attorney General Becerra was the warrior and champion we needed and that was necessary as we were facing a frontal assault on California, our people, our values and our resources, and he fought back and protected us and defended us and stood up for ours Values again and again.
Well, I think we have a Biden Harris administration that largely agrees that we should definitely have the Affordable Care Act, that we should have reproductive freedom, that we should address the injustices that we have in our health care system should provide affordable, accessible, quality health care for all – and will help us get there.
So I’m looking for cooperation with the new administration. California can and should continue to be what we are. We lead. We go first. We pioneers. We are brave and we think big. That’s us, that’s why a leading role is our natural place, also in health care.
This story was produced by KHN, an editor of California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health topics. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operational programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a non-profit foundation that provides the country with information on health issues.
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