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Gov. Jerry Brown takes case for Medi-Cal cuts to Washington

At a White House meeting with Obama and other governors, Brown discusses the Medi-Cal issue and his efforts to exempt California schools from new sanctions that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

February 25, 2012|By Anthony York, Los Angeles Times
  • Gov. Jerry Brown speaks at an event in Los Angeles earlier this month. Besides meeting at the White House on Friday with President Obama and 11 other Democratic governors, Brown had a private meeting with Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Thursday.
Gov. Jerry Brown speaks at an event in Los Angeles earlier this month. Besides… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Washington -- Gov. Jerry Brown delivered a message to the Obama administration this week in Washington: Back off.

The governor wants the federal government to let him make more cuts in the Medi-Cal program that serves low-income Californians and to exempt state schools from new sanctions that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Brown said he raised the issues in a White House meeting with President Obama and 11 other Democratic governors Friday morning and in a private meeting with Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Thursday.

Brown told reporters at the White House on Friday that he was asking for "greater flexibility so that we can cut the Medi-Cal program where we need to and … flexibility on some of the federal restrictions on our education programs."

Brown's proposed budget, which would take effect in July, depends on about $500 million in annual savings by requiring low-income patients to pay part of their own healthcare costs. The governor would require Medi-Cal patients to pay up to $200 for a hospital stay, $50 for emergency room visits, $5 for routine doctor and dental appointments and $3 for prescription drugs.

Earlier this month, the Obama administration rejected that scenario. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency that rejected the state's plan, refused to comment about the governor's push or about whether the state ultimately will be given leeway to make the healthcare cuts.

After his meeting with the president, Brown said he was "optimistic that we can get some compromise on that waiver" but did not offer specifics.

The governor's top legislative aide, Nancy McFadden, also held meetings with senior White House staff Friday on the Medi-Cal issue, and Brown is scheduled to meet with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius this weekend.

Advocates for the poor say the governor's proposal would cause people to neglect their health.

"Co-pays are going to be a disincentive for people to seek care," said Elizabeth Zirker, an attorney for Disability Rights California. "That's just going to prevent poor people from seeking care and drive up the cost of providing healthcare."

Brown says the state's schools also need a reprieve — from some of the sanctions in the federal No Child Left Behind law. The state Department of Education recently estimated that failure to receive a waiver could cost California schools more than $200 million in 2014.

Duncan has given states an opportunity to apply for exemptions from requirements that all students test at grade level in math and reading. But state education leaders and Brown have bristled at some new requirements that Duncan wants to impose on states that opt out.

Among the most troubling, Brown has said, is Duncan's demand that districts use student test scores to evaluate teachers and principals — something the governor has long opposed.

In 2009, then-Atty. Gen. Brown penned a tersely worded letter to Duncan about the secretary's desire to link test scores to teacher evaluations. "The basic assumption … appears to be that top-down, Washington-driven standardization is best," Brown wrote. "... I sense a pervasive technocratic bias and an uncritical faith in the power of social science."

Brown admitted that his communication with the education secretary was still evolving.

"The Duncan [relationship] is a work in progress," Brown said. But he said he hoped the secretary would make room for "diversity and flexibility in what California does, so we don't have a monolithic approach."

anthony.york@latimes.com

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