Q&A: Sen. Jeff Stone on legislative priorities, the budget, & district-specific challenges

Sen. Jeff Stone represents California’s 28th State Senate District, which covers from Southwest Riverside County to the state’s border with Arizona.

Stone is Vice-Chairman of both the Senate Committee on Health and the Senate Committee on Human Services. He also serves on the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communication, Environmental Quality, Transportation, and Budget Committees — as well as Budget Subcommittee #3 on Health and Human Services.

We talked to Stone about his legislative priorities, issues unique to his district, and the budget process as the Legislature nears its deadline for a compromise.

Get the latest state-specific policy intelligence for the health care sector delivered to your inbox.

Emily Viles: Tell me a bit about your district. What are some of the health care challenges, successes, or concerns in Senate District 28?

Jeff Stone: The 28th district is a large district. It is almost the entire geographic area. It encompasses a large urban area and some smaller rural areas — almost all of Riverside county.

There is a lot of sprawl in my county, and there are two distinct areas: the southwest region, where I formerly lived in Temecula, and the Coachella Valley area, all the way to the Arizona border.

The problem is that we have 13 million Californians enrolled in Medi-Cal. A lot are in managed care. But, for the ones who are not, if is very difficult for them to find health care services, because many physicians won’t take Medi-Cal because of the fee is significantly lower to them than, say, the Medicare fee. The difference is about $41.00 for a Medicare fee and about $17.00 for a Medi-Cal fee.

What happens is that people who are on the lower socioeconomic spectrum end up having to go to an emergency room for care. And that is twenty-five times more expensive.

We also have a lot of rural areas that are small, and really just one government check from closing their doors.

EV: In regard to the rural areas of your district and the lack of access to health care facilities: Have you noticed an increase in surprise medical billing as a result of receiving care from emergency rooms and free-standing emergency rooms? Is this something that your constituents are talking to you about?

JS: Yes, it is. The hospitals [in my district], especially like JFK, they see a lot of Medi-Cal patients and a lot of immigrants coming to the emergency room, because they have no insurance and they need to be seen. I don’t care what country you are from, in the United States, the law says that if you go into an emergency room, you have to be seen.

EV: How has your role as a pharmacist, and owning your own pharmacies in your district, impacted some of the legislation you either introduce or support? I see, for example, that this session you introduced the Pharmacist-In-Charge bill. Can you tell me a bit about that bill?

JS: So, the State Board of Pharmacy has what is called a Pharmacist-In-Charge. That means that every pharmacy has to pick somebody to be the point person for anything that goes wrong in that pharmacy. The problem that I have with that — that some other pharmacies and chain stores, for that matter, have with that — is that you may have some pharmacies that…Some pharmacies are open 24 hours a day. So, you need three pharmacists working eight-hour days. As the pharmacy manager, you have the luxury shift of 9 am to 5 pm, but what if the 6 pm-to-2 am worker is dealing narcotics out the back door?

The problem is that the pharmacist in charge is the person that gets cited, along with the person that knowingly broke the law. I think that is wrong, and that a pharmacist should only be liable for the things that they have control over, or that they were made aware of. I was looking for some fairness there.

EV: Is that bill a response to the opioid crisis at all, given that there is a nationwide focus on the rising number of opioid overdose deaths?

JS: No, not directly, although it definitely will help those Pharmacists-In-Charge if they have those pharmacists that are perhaps over-dispensing or fulfilling prescriptions that perhaps are not legitimate.

EV: Tell me a bit about what you are working on, what health care issues you have on your horizon. What are some of the healthcare highlights in the budget?

JS: One of my main goals in the budget was to ensure that our developmentally disabled community get proper care. What happened in 2008 and 2009 with the economic crisis was that the state cut back nearly 10 percent on all these fees as a way to save money.

The problem is that, even with our restoring economy over the past decade, they have not restored the fees or rates. It costs the providers more to provide these services than what the state is paying them. We have developmentally disabled kids, some requiring 24/7 care, that are having trouble getting these services. I am very proud that I was able to get them an 8-percent increase in their fees.

A troubling aspect of our budget is that we have competing bills in the Assembly and in the Senate.

A bill in the Senate will provide undocumented immigrants between the ages of 26 and 65 or older with free health care in the Medi-Cal system. There is a competing bill in the Assembly that will give anyone, irrespective of their status or age, full medical benefits.

They are both very costly plans. My argument is that we have 180,000 homeless people in the state of California, many of which are veterans. Why are we not helping those that have served our country? I am not saying that we should not help people who are not from this country philanthropically, I think we should — and we do, at least I do in my private practice life. I think we should spend it on our citizens first, and then with the money left over, help others. We have too many Californians suffering today…I would rather see us use our scarce budget surplus on those that are here legally first.

EV: In terms of veteran’s assistance, I would be interested to hear some of the veteran’s issues in your district, or some health care issues related to veterans’ access to care. I see you have some veteran’s property tax exemption bills in your legislative history. Can you tell me a bit about this?

JS: When I lived in Temecula for 35 years — we are very close to San Diego and Camp Pendleton — I was aware of many nonprofits that provided services for severely disabled veterans.

The problem was that, when veterans who are severely disabled received homes that have widened hallways and handicapped bathrooms and facilities in them, the assessment value was much higher, resulting in property taxes that were close to $60,000 a year. Well, these veterans cannot afford to pay that. They are severely disabled and relying on the government to assist them in the form of pensions, etc.

So, my thought [in this bill] was to zero out the property taxes for this very narrow group of veterans who qualify. And, the cost to the state was actually very minimal, it was $5 million dollars.

EV: Lastly, is there anything else you would to tell me, anything else you would like to make the public aware of? Perhaps something that is on your health care horizon, something in the industry you are watching?

JS: Well, we are concerned about the cost of prescription drugs. I am certainly aware of this, as a pharmacist.

I have written a technical bill, it’s SB 642, and the bill is one that will get rid of the middleman. The middleman that takes billions of dollars out of the hands of beneficiaries and providers.

By cutting out the middleman, it is basically making the state the middle man, we can lower health insurance premiums, and co-pays, and the cost of drugs by billions of dollars. I am really proud of that bill, but it is a complicated bill that will take a few years to get passed.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.