NORWALK — Clients who showed up at the Norwalk Health Center last Thursday to renew their birth control prescriptions found that service cut off.
"We referred everybody to Bellflower," said Patti Leeson, a supervisor at the county facility. "Most of them are having difficulties dealing with it."
Hit by state funding cuts, the Norwalk center--which used to offer family planning services every Thursday afternoon--was one of 13 health centers countywide to discontinue those services last week. The other Southeast-area center to eliminate the services was in Hawaiian Gardens, while the health center in Pico Rivera cut its family planning services back from four sessions a week to three. Among the results locally, county health officials fear, will be at least 260 unwanted pregnancies next year, an alarming spread of sexually transmitted diseases and scores of new abortions.
"It's a real tragedy," said Dr. Irwin Silberman, director of maternal health and family planning programs for the county Health Department. "I'm very distressed."
The cuts stemmed from Gov. George Deukmejian's decision in July to slash two-thirds of the state's $36.2-million family planning budget, apparently because of rising teen-age pregnancy rates that he considers evidence of the programs' failure.
The action has been vigorously protested by pro-choice leaders and Democratic state legislators, some of whom rallied on Wednesday in an effort to persuade the governor to change his mind.
But last week as the debate raged, clients arriving at the Norwalk and Hawaiian Gardens centers for various other medical services were reacting negatively to the news that those locations would no longer be offering gynecological exams, Pap smears, pregnancy counseling and birth control or testing for venereal disease.
Most of the clients are low-income Latinos, many of them teen-agers.
"It will be a hardship on people," said Carmen Ruiz, a mother of 10 who has used the family planning services in the past. "I'd rather see (the services) stay here."
Cheryl Maldonado said, "I don't think they should (cut) birth control. That's too important right now."
Officials at the two centers--which last year served about 1,450 family planning patients--said they are referring would-be family planning clients to a health center in Bellflower that they believe is equipped to handle some of the overflow. In addition, they said, clients can get the services at the county facilities in Pico Rivera or Compton, although waiting periods for appointments at those clinics are expected to be long.
But many of the clients, the officials say, will find it almost impossible to leave their neighborhoods because of lack of transportation or child care. And even if they do make it to Bellflower, they said, that facility has the capacity to handle only about a third of those turned away in Norwalk and Hawaiian Gardens, with the result that many will simply not get the services.
"These are poor people who were going to family planning in order to avoid having more children," Silberman said. "They were acting responsibly, doing what we would hope they would do and what their more affluent sisters do regularly. Now we are denying them that opportunity."
The result, he said, could be at least 260 unwanted pregnancies next year in the Norwalk and Hawaiian Gardens areas alone. Countywide, he said, the number will likely be in the thousands.
Although both centers are still open for such routine medical procedures as physical examinations, inoculations and pediatric appointments, the mood at the Norwalk facility on Thursday was fairly subdued. "Word (of the cuts) must have gotten around," Leeson said.
Though abortion was never among the services offered at the two centers, Silberman said, as many as half of the new unwanted pregnancies are likely to end in abortions. "If people support cutbacks in family planning," he said, "they are promoting and supporting the need for abortions. When poor women become pregnant and recognize that they are unable to care for the coming child, they seek abortions. We think it's a sad irony."