An effort to develop a universal health program in California may be picking up steam as officials count votes.[@@]

With 15% of precincts reporting, the state’s universal health ballot measure, Proposition 72, was losing 46% to 54%.

Now, with 97.3% of precincts reporting, support for the proposition now amounts to 49.3% of the votes counted, with 4.51 million of the votes counted favoring the proposition and 4.63 million opposing it. The gap stands at about 120,000 votes.

Former California Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, brought about the referendum in October 2003, by signing S.B. 2. The bill created a law that requires California to start setting up a universal health program. The program would require employers with at least 50 workers to provide health coverage for their employees or else contribute to a state-run health coverage system.

The law also could require employers with 20 to 49 employees to provide health coverage if California first adopts a 20% health coverage tax credit.

A separate referendum effort organized by S.B. 2 opponents gave California residents a say, by putting an S.B. 2 program implementation measure on the general election ballot.

Supporters of the universal health program say it might help hold down overall health care costs, by giving poor and moderate-income residents access to better preventive care and reducing the need for the state, hospitals, private insurers and private employers to wrestle over the cost of “charity care.”

Critics say the program would be more expensive than supporters say and would impose what amounts to a huge new tax on employers.

California is posting ballot measure election results at http://vote2004.ss.ca.gov/Returns/prop/00.htm

(Updated at Nov. 3, 2004, 8:05 a.m. EST)