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Leaders Unable to Get Medicare Penalty Cut


Ventura County supervisors failed in their effort to get a $15-million Medicare penalty reduced during a two-day lobbying trip to the nation's capital this week, a trip criticized by some as a waste of time and money.

County officials said Friday they earned no promises from Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, despite several meetings urging them for special legislation that would waive the penalty portion of the Medicare settlement--more than $7 million.

But supervisors said the visit was beneficial because it cleared a line of communication between them and the federal agencies that have the funds to help address the county's fiscal woes.

"It's well worth it," Supervisor Kathy Long said. "We didn't waste time there."

Four supervisors and Chief Administrative Officer Harry Hufford traveled to Washington on Tuesday on the $4,000 lobbying trip. Most returned late Thursday. Supervisor John Flynn, who arrived Monday, is expected back today.

The goals for the trip varied with each supervisor.

Flynn said he held 19 meetings over five days, lobbying Interior Department officials for help funding a $3.7-million dismantling of the Matilija Dam.

Long and Supervisor Susan Lacey met with Feinstein and Boxer on the Medicare issue. Supervisors Frank Schillo and Judy Mikels met with Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), because they said it was impossible to get meetings with the two California senators.

Considering Gallegly is in his Simi Valley office twice a week, a spokesman said the congressman questioned why county representatives didn't arrange a meeting there.

"They said, 'We had to be out here anyway,' " said Tom Pfeifer, Gallegly's aide.

Meanwhile, Long said her discussions with Feinstein centered on Ventura County's eligibility for federal grants that could help fund health care services. She said Feinstein needs the number of uninsured and Medi-Cal patients the county hospital serves before any steps can be taken. Long said Feinstein's help is essential in the county's bid to convince the U.S. Health Care Financing Administration to reinstate $1.6 million annually in withheld Medicare reimbursements.

The county could receive those funds if the agency agrees to reclassify county clinics--now considered independent medical facilities--as outpatient satellites of the Ventura County Medical Center.

In addition to the lost reimbursement money, the county must pay $15.3 million to the federal government for years of overbilling Medicare. The county has already paid a first installment of $3.1 million.

Congressmen Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) had called the supervisors' effort to reduce the penalties "a longshot."

In February, Hufford and county Health Care Agency Director Pierre Durand met with Thomas A. Gustafson, a top administrator with the U.S. Health Care Financing Administration, to try to negotiate a compromise on classification of the county's clinics.

Afterward, Gustafson agreed to "take a fresh look" at Medicare guidelines. But since then, the Health Care Financing Administration has taken no steps to free any funding for the county.

It was time for county supervisors to seek help from federal lawmakers, Schillo said.

In other areas, Schillo said, he spent much of his time in Washington lobbying officials with the U.S. National Guard to give the Channel Islands Navy base three new C-130J planes, valued at $60 million each.

"We may have pulled a real coup there," Schillo said.

To close the trip, supervisors met with Vice President Al Gore's staff, a ceremonial meeting that Mikels characterized as a "dog-and-pony show."

"[Gore's staff] can't do anything for you," she said. "But it doesn't hurt. And it's thrilling to be in the Old Executive [Office] building."

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