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Healthcare cuts would mean higher costs and possibly deaths, officials warn

Cuts in funding would end medical insurance for 2 million Californians, health officials and patients tell a legislative panel. They say some at-risk residents might not survive the loss of programs.

May 28, 2009|Eric Bailey and Alexandra Zavis

SACRAMENTO AND LOS ANGELES — AIDS drugs. Health insurance for the luckless. A hand for junkies trying to kick drugs. Help for a single mom trying to get a job.

The poor, the sick and the people who help them survive paraded into the state Capitol to plead with lawmakers Wednesday to spare the programs Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said must be slashed to tame California's $24.3-billion budget deficit.

Schwarzenegger argues that the state's declining economy and plummeting tax revenues have boxed California into a corner, forcing deep and historic cuts in the health and welfare programs that form the state's social safety net. Without those tough measures, he says, California will cartwheel toward insolvency.

But a 10-person legislative budget panel, which is reviewing the governor's proposals, listened during a long day in a crowded hearing room to scores of people who said their survival depends on programs set to be hit by the budget ax.

They heard from mothers of children with autism, representatives of people on dialysis, poor parents whose children see dentists on the government's dime, former drug abusers set straight by a state rehab program.

And they heard from a woman named Lynnea Garbutt who has lived with AIDS all of her 24 years.

She has survived with the help of a state program that provides the expensive antiviral drugs she takes. Now, with that program facing elimination, she pleaded with lawmakers to save it -- and her life.

"If these cuts take place, you're not just cutting money from the program -- you're cutting my life," she told the panel, her voice shaking and tears falling. "I choose to live. Please don't make me die. My choice is life."

The governor, who was appearing at an event in Los Angeles, lamented that many of the most severe cuts might have been avoided if voters had approved a slate of ballot measures in the May 19 special election. That would have pumped nearly $6 billion into state coffers.

"I think that the people have spoken now. . . . They don't want to raise taxes," Schwarzenegger said. "That's why they voted no. . . . So we are jammed into a corner and we have to now act fiscally responsible."

Schwarzenegger said the state's revenues "are in a free-fall right now" and expressed sadness over the budget-slashing that he has resolved to carry out.

"It is painful to know that the kinds of programs that you cut are absolutely essential to people," Schwarzenegger said. "But when you don't have the money, you can't promise something to people, something you cannot afford."

Democratic lawmakers, however, continued to hope that some programs could be saved.

"We will accept some of the governor's cuts, not all of them," said Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles).

Bass said that adopting Schwarzenegger's proposal in its entirety would leave California "looking like a Southern state like Mississippi, where there has never been support for these programs."

From throughout the state, meanwhile, advocates and the aggrieved came to plead for the programs that they said sustain them.

Public health officials said spending cuts would halt medical insurance for more than 2 million Californians, sending them streaming into emergency rooms and costing the state billions of dollars for the more expensive care they would receive there -- and potentially causing deaths.

Scores of patients and healthcare advocates told the legislative committee that in many cases the loss of state funding would mean an even bigger loss of federal dollars. A proposal to cut funds for family planning, for instance, would mean losing $9 in federal money for every $1 cut by the state, advocates testified.

Schwarzenegger said the state had no choice.

"We sometimes give up federal money so we can move forward and live within our means," he said. "That's just the way it is."

In the worst cases, health advocates said, cuts could mean the deaths of patients who would be unable to get proper and timely treatment.

David Welch, a California Nurses Assn. board member, said the results of the governor's proposed budget cuts would be "perfectly predictable": more people without care, more showing up at emergency rooms, more dying.

Eliminating healthcare for some of its most vulnerable residents, he said, would make California "a contemptible society -- and a society that history will not judge kindly."

Some who testified pleaded for more revenue, ignoring exhortations from Republican lawmakers to stand fast against tax increases as the state toils in coming weeks to balance its books.

"What I suggest is: Let's raise some revenue," said John Malone of the California Alliance of Retired Americans, arguing that the state needs to boost taxes on alcohol, tobacco and the wealthy while adding a fee for oil pumped from California soils.

Some simply pleaded from the heart.

James Nunez, who has a developmental disability, told the panel that he worried about surviving without government help.

"I'm a human being like you," he said. "And I'm very, very scared."

--

eric.bailey@latimes.com

alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

Times staff writer Evan Halper contributed to this report.

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