Dear Governor: Are You Sure You Had This in Mind?

To hear the impassioned pleas of dozens of health care advocates testifying before the budget conference committee Wednesday, you had to wonder what in the world the governor was thinking when he drew up his slash-and-burn proposed budget cuts.

Surely, he can’t be serious.

Does Arnold Schwarzenegger really want to be remembered as the governor who denied health care to as many as 2 million Californians in need during the worst economic plunge in modern times?

If so, he got a boost from the public on Wednesday, as the diagnosed, the disabled, the wheelchair-bound, and the newly unemployed joined health-care professionals, advocates, county officials and other consumers in warning of the dire consequences of the governor’s proposals.

With an overflowing crowd waiting for an unprecedented chance to offer their 90 seconds of testimony to a budget committee that’s usually closed to public comment, Assemblywoman Noreen Evans (D), the committee’s chair, put matters in perspective:

“This crisis is of historic magnitude,” Evans announced. “We are not just focused on the crisis of the moment. The people of California have said fix this thing in a lasting, constructive way — and we want your ideas.”

She did get some ideas (cut administrative overhead, for one; trim prison spending, for another), some solid reasoning and plenty of emotion during the hours of public comment to follow:

  • Many expressed dismay that California would be content to lag so far behind the rest of the nation in providing health care for children through the Healthy Families program. Schwarzenegger proposes eliminating the program, even though it is funded by $2 of federal money for every $1 California spends….
  • which was one reason (but not the only one) that led so many speakers to use the axiom “penny wise, but pound foolish” as did mental health advocate Rusty Selix in reacting to the proposed severe cuts.
  • Others said Healthy Families and Medi-Cal – also on the governor’s chopping block – are the programs that keep low-income families from financial ruin in case of a medical emergency.
  • Several pointed out that some cuts in medication can result in people cycling in and out of jail or prison, a much more expensive option than providing care.
  • Health Access’ Beth Capell told legislators that “the cuts that are proposed are the kind that turn recessions into great depressions.”
  • Capell and others suggested revisiting a tobacco tax; others suggested a dime-a-drink alcohol tax.
  • Spokesmen for Indian health programs noted that any reduction in health services will have long-lasting implications: “We are making decisions that might save us money today, but will hurt us later — and may lead to loss of life.”
  • Many noted that people will end up in the emergency room, further straining hospitals hit hard by the down economy, and costing more in the long-run.
  • SEIU’s Mary Hernandez was blunt: “The idea of adding 2 million people to the uninsured is unimaginable.”
  • One spokesman opposing the elimination of health services for new legal immigrants declared: “What we are looking at is an absolute evisceration of our safety net services.”
  • Perhaps no one was more moving, however, than the young woman who was diagnosed with HIV at age 6, having contracted it at birth. She was recently laid off. “I get $57 a week in unemployment. Without these programs, I can’t afford the medications that keep me from getting AIDS.” She began to sob. “I want to live this life. Please don’t allow these cuts to take place. You’ll cut my life.”

We wonder if this is what Schwarzenegger had in mind when he said he wants California to have a “robust debate” about its budgetary process.

Health Access California promotes quality, affordable health care for all Californians.

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