More Spending for Health Supported in Poll

Times Staff Writer

A majority of Californians want to see additional government funding of health care programs for the poor and are personally willing to pay more taxes to support these services, according to a new Gallup Poll commissioned by state hospital executives.

Nearly nine out of 10 Californians believe that employers should be required to provide basic health insurance for their employees, and about 75% said the federal government should develop "some form of national health insurance program for everyone."

More than 80% believe that additional revenue generated by the state's new tobacco tax initiative, Proposition 99, should be used to improve health care programs, not to fund other state services, as proposed by Gov. George Deukmejian. And, when asked to rate the governor's overall performance on health care issues, more people disapproved (36%) than approved (28%), with the remainder undecided.

These were some of the findings of a wide-ranging annual poll that hospital executives said they commissioned in order "to take the temperature" of Californians on a variety of health concerns ranging from personal health habits to political views. The poll results were released Wednesday in Los Angeles at the offices of the Hospital Council of Southern California.

The most significant trend that emerged, council Vice President David Langness said, is that "Californians are beginning to be more and more aware and concerned about the health of the entire state, not just their own . . . and they are enormously concerned about health care for the poor."

The poll comes at a time when Deukmejian has proposed statewide reductions in health services, including a huge reduction in the amount of money Los Angeles County receives for medically indigent patients--from $204 million to $56 million.

The state's health care crunch was expected to be somewhat relieved by the recent passage of Proposition 99, which raised taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products. The additional $625 million that will be raised in the upcoming budget year was expected to be spent on new health care programs, but Deukmejian in January proposed spending most of the money on other financially strapped state services.

"Californians do not want this money to be hijacked by the governor and used for other purposes," Langness said. About 82% of the 1,000 people queried by telephone in April said the money should be used to finance new health care programs, as the proposition intended. "That's a very high percentage," Langness said, "especially considering that only 58% of the people voted for Proposition 99 in the first place."

Assemblyman Burt Margolin (D-Los Angeles) said the poll results "send a very clear message to Gov. Deukmejian that his health care policies are completely out of step with public opinion in California."

Margolin said that the poll should also put the business community on alert that there is "clear support" for a requirement that employers provide basic health insurance for their employees.

But several Orange County legislators were not so impressed. "You have to wonder how the questions were phrased," said Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach). "I found it rather surprising politically in light of local elections, school bond issues that were turned down decisively."

Added Assemblyman Nolan Frizzelle (R-Huntington Beach): "Do they know what they're paying now? . . . I don't think they're informed as to what we provide already." Frizzelle, who is an optometrist, said he thought "when push comes to shove and it comes out of their own pocketbook . . . they probably wouldn't do it (vote for an additional tax for health care)."

By contrast, health care experts in Orange County were delighted by the poll.

Dr. Walter Henry, vice chancellor of health services at UC Irvine, said he was gratified that "people are so compassionate" on the subject of indigent care and glad that so many realized that "there is a gap between what it costs to provide medical care and what the medical agency receives in payment for that medical care." (UCI's deficit-ridden medical center currently cares for half of the county's poor patients.)

And Vicki Mayster, vice chair of the Orange County Task Force on Indigent Care, said she was delighted that so many people indicated that they are willing to be taxed for health care. "I say 'Amen' to that," Mayster said. "Now what we need is a way to get people organized in ways that our Legislature will hear it and take action. That's so often where the problem comes. That's where the gap is."

The poll found that 65% of Californians believe government is paying too little money to hospitals to care for the treatment of senior citizens on Medicare, and 60% feel there is insufficient funding to help defray the cost of treating people with no medical insurance of any sort.

About 80% said they believe that it is the government's responsibility to pay for medical care for people who cannot afford it, and 53% said they would personally be willing to pay up to $38 per month in additional taxes for this purpose.

If cutting back on other government programs were the only way to finance health care for the poor, 35% said that defense and military spending should be cut.

If priorities had to be set singling out the neediest group for care, 41% said that children should be ranked at the top and 19% pointed to the elderly. Pregnant women, the disabled, the homeless, and mentally ill followed, in descending order.

Asked what is the single most important threat to Californians today, 25% of the respondents ranked pollution at the top. Pollution of the air, water and general environment was ranked as the biggest threat statewide, with AIDS a close second. Only 7% of respondents ranked substance abuse and cancer as the biggest threat.

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