OAKLAND -- Buoyed by two polls showing voter support for bolstering the medical safety net, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted on Tuesday afternoon to seek an extension of the county's health care tax.
That means that on June 3, a ballot measure will ask county voters to extend the Measure A half-cent sales tax to 2034, adding 15 years to its current 2019 expiration date.
The safety net measure is the only tax of its kind in California, a revenue stream that funds an expansive network of public and nonprofit hospitals and clinics, offering indigent patients "one of the highest standards of care" in California, said Alex Briscoe, director of the Alameda County Health Care Services Agency.
"We think current voters will strongly support Measure A. The time is right," Briscoe told supervisors at their board chambers Tuesday.
Four of the five supervisors voted to approve the tax extension. Supervisor Scott Haggerty was excused from the vote because he was in New York selling Alameda County Transportation Commission bonds, but he also supports the measure, said spokesman Shawn Wilson.
The board must vote a second time next Tuesday to formally place the measure on the June 3 primary ballot.
By putting the measure before voters in June, just four months away, Measure A supporters are taking a risk that they can wage an effective campaign to win over voters in a short period of time. But they have reasons to hurry. County officials are avoiding competition in the fall with another countywide sales tax initiative for transportation projects scheduled for the November general election. They also want time to retry Measure A's reauthorization in 2016 if it fails in June.
Seventy-one percent of Alameda County voters backed Measure A when it was first introduced in 2004 as a 15-year tax to fortify safety net facilities such as the then-ailing Highland Hospital in Oakland.
Then, as now, the measure required two-thirds of voters to approve it.
"Tied to the culture of consumerism," the tax on retail goods generated less money during the recession but collected a record $120 million for critical health care services last year, Briscoe said. And that money is still urgently needed, he said, to provide everything from emergency medical to mental health care to the county's most vulnerable residents.
Three-quarters of the revenue goes directly to the Alameda Health System, the public health authority that encompasses Highland and several other hospitals and clinics. The remaining quarter is allocated by the Board of Supervisors and subsidizes nonprofit hospitals and a network of community clinics.
County officials assert that the sales tax is still needed despite President Barack Obama's new health care law that expands free or low-cost health insurance for many low-income patients. Health providers say that thousands of county residents will remain uninsured, many of them undocumented immigrants legally excluded from the new state and federal health insurance exchange. Declaring health care a human right, Alameda County officials have long pledged to keep serving them.
About 35 people, including community clinic organizers and hospital executives, signed up to speak in favor of Measure A's reauthorization at the board meeting Tuesday.
"Measure A has been a phenomenal resource for our medical center," said Bert Lubin, president of Children's Hospital Oakland, one of the nonprofits that benefits from the tax's proceeds. "We don't turn anyone away. ... We address safety net issues, all the time, every day."
No one spoke in opposition Tuesday. The measure's only public opponent in 2004 was Berkeley physician Lance Montauk, who wrote the counter-argument that appeared on that year's March ballot. Montauk could not be reached for comment Tuesday about whether he plans to oppose it again.
What: Measure A half-cent sales tax for health care services
Election date: June 3
Needed to pass: Two thirds approval of Alameda County voters
What voters are being asked: Extend the measure's expiration date from 2019 to 2034
Language that would appear on ballot: "Without increasing the existing half-cent sales and use tax for essential health services, to provide trauma and emergency medical services and primary, preventative healthcare for local residents including indigent, low-income and uninsured children, families and seniors, to prevent closure of county clinics and hospitals and to recruit/retain highly qualified nurses and healthcare professionals, shall Alameda County extend the essential healthcare services measure until June 2034 with annual fiscal oversight/review?"