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ELECTION RECOMMENDATION

Vote Yes for Trauma Care

October 18, 2002

Los Angeles County Measure B is a swallow-your-medicine tax increase that comes with no sweeteners to ease its passage, not even a guarantee that the money raised for trauma and emergency care would keep all the county's beleaguered hospitals open. But the treatment, however uncertain, is better than the alternative -- doing nothing and waiting for the entire system to collapse.

The measure would authorize the county to levy a parcel tax of 3 cents per square foot on homes, office buildings and other developed properties, costing the owner of a 1,500-square-foot house $45 a year. The $170 million raised would be earmarked for trauma and emergency medical services as well as for a new, post-9/11 responsibility -- bioterrorism readiness.

Given the traditional antipathy toward taxes and the number of other measures sharing the Nov. 5 ballot, even $4 a month is a tough sell, especially for a service no one thinks about until he or she suffers a car accident, a heart attack or an anthrax scare.

Anyone, rich or poor, insured or not, can need emergency care. Providing that care is a money-loser. Even private insurance doesn't fully cover the costs. Hemorrhaging money, so many emergency departments have closed in the last 15 years that the system is already stretched perilously thin, increasing waits and diverting ambulances.

Opponents of Measure B argue that the county could find money by cutting costs elsewhere or by asking for federal and state help. They underestimate the enormity of the need. The overburdened, underfunded emergency system is but one symptom of a larger health-care crisis. Los Angeles County's uninsured rate is twice the national average and 30% higher than California's overall rate. To cut costs, the county already has closed a dozen outpatient clinics. Still its health department faces a deficit of about $600 million as an earlier federal bailout is phased out.

Measure B does not pretend to provide enough money to cure the department's budget woes; it would generate less than one-third of that $600-million gap. What Measure B would do is keep at least the core emergency and trauma services going and probably save some lives in the meantime. The federal government, which bears the responsibility for the illegal immigration that strains the county's health-care system, and the state government, which needs to understand that what threatens Los Angeles also threatens California's business and tourist climate, must still meet their responsibilities in addressing this mounting crisis.

In the meantime, Los Angeles County residents can ignore all this and hope that they can find a trauma center open if they need one -- or they can vote for Measure B, knowing that there's plenty left for the state and federal government to do.

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