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COUNTY REPORT: A Message Hits Home : PROPOSITION 187 : Some Patients See Law as Issue of Life or Death

November 20, 1994|SARA CATANIA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Obdula Teran stole across the Mexican border into the United States five years ago, she willingly surrendered the rights of citizenship for a chance at a better life.

Two weeks ago, she says, that sacrifice nearly killed her.

Six months pregnant and violently ill, the 25-year-old Mexico City native refused to see a doctor.

With Proposition 187 on the ballot, Teran feared that a trip to the doctor could mean a permanent trip back over the border into Mexico. The measure--now in limbo until court challenges are resolved--requires that medical workers deny non-emergency care to illegal immigrants and report them to immigration authorities.

As Teran's condition worsened, friends and family urged the feverish woman to seek help, tending to her as best they could in the tiny two-bedroom Ventura apartment she shares with her husband, sister and two young children.

During her first two pregnancies, Teran had not thought twice about visiting her doctor in Ventura. Now, dread gripped her and she would not go.

Then, the day after California voters resoundingly passed Proposition 187, Teran lapsed into unconsciousness and her husband rushed her to the emergency room at Ventura County Medical Center.

Doctors quickly discovered a blood clot in her lungs and labored to stabilize her life-threatening condition. After a week in intensive care, Teran learned she will probably be spending the rest of her fragile pregnancy in the hospital.

Bundled in a hospital gown, her left arm wrapped in a jumble of plastic ID bands, Teran recounted the traumatic experience and the terror she still feels.

"The only reason I came to the hospital was because I was in a state of dying," she said, her voice raspy and congested. "I thought I was near death.

"I am a very strong person," she added. "There are few things that scare me, but Proposition 187 scares me. If I get deported, what would happen to my kids?"

Teran's story is one of pediatrician Chris Landon's worst nightmares.

In recent weeks, patient visits to a clinic for women and children Landon runs in Ventura have dropped by half, a decline he attributes, at least in part, to the initiative.

"Our whole emphasis is on prevention, getting to people before they get sick," Landon said. "If this thing goes into effect, it could set us way back."

Robert Kiley, a political consultant who worked on the Proposition 187 campaign, has little sympathy for Teran and other illegal immigrants in need of care.

"I don't mean to be inhumane, but this woman is a perfect example of why we need Prop. 187," Kiley said. "She has already had two children here and now she's on her third, and she doesn't even belong here. All I can say is, these people are going to have to go back home. We're paying for her care while Americans are homeless and starving in the streets."

*

Steve Frank, a supporter of the ballot measure, said doctors have a less than noble motive in defending access to health care for illegal immigrants.

"They say they are concerned about health and welfare," Frank said. "But really, their only goal is to have more patients and more money, wherever they can get them."

A week before the election, state health officials reported that Medi-Cal costs for illegal immigrants in Ventura County have quadrupled since 1989 to $9.3 million last year.

But county health officials said the numbers could be skewed because of changes in the type of benefits provided and because some illegal immigrants use false papers to qualify for other types of medical care.

Most of the Medi-Cal funding went to federally mandated health care for illegal immigrants. The state and federal government split the cost evenly.

About $1 million was paid for prenatal care for illegal immigrants, a cost picked up solely by the state.

Shortly after the election, Gov. Pete Wilson called for an immediate halt to state-funded prenatal services for illegal immigrants. The order triggered a 60-day notification period before cuts can be made in the state-financed Access for Infants and Mothers (AIM) program.

A court order could block the action, but if enforced, basic services including blood tests, checkups and ultrasound for undocumented patients would be cut off. Last week, county officials agreed to wait for direction from the state before trying to implement the measure.

If the county does eventually comply with the measure, illegal immigrants may find themselves turning to clinics that do not rely on government funding to operate.

The privately funded Free Clinic of Simi Valley is one such place. Founded in 1971, the clinic provides medical care to about 4,700 clients a year.

The clinic is committed to patient confidentiality and has no plans to check the citizenship of its clients, Executive Director Fred Bauermeister said.

"We respect people's privacy, so much so that there was a time when we considered not even asking people their names," Bauermeister said. "Our job is to provide health care, not keep tabs on the legal status of our clients."

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