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Focus Is on Indigent : County Is Warned of Health-Care Crunch

Times Staff Writer

Orange County is racing toward catastrophe in health-care services because it has placed more emphasis on buildings and highways than medical care, health care representatives warned the Board of Supervisors on Thursday.

“The emergency care system in Orange County is near collapse,” said Peter Anderson, director of emergency medicine at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center. “The ability of hospitals, physicians, mental health clinics and county medical clinics to continue to offer medical care to the indigent is nearing its breaking point,” he added.

During a second day of public hearings on the county’s $2.9-billion, 1989-90 tentative budget, the supervisors listened to speakers who focused on the lack of health care for those without medical insurance.

Indigent Alcoholics Cited

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Jean Forbath, director and founder of Share Our Selves, a Costa Mesa organization that provides food, housing and medical assistance to the needy, said the current budget crisis left many low-income and poor people with few options.

Among the programs suffering because of inadequate funding, she said, was one that provides treatment for indigent alcoholics.

“I don’t believe that an alcoholic indigent has the slightest chance of making it in Orange County,” Forbath said.

Chauncey Alexander, chairman of the United Way Health Care Task Force, told the board that the county’s human-services funding has been inadequate compared to other areas. The task force is composed of representatives from 45 organizations that concentrate on health-care issues.

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Alexander said the budget for welfare payments and health care to the poor, set for $79.7 million, has dropped in the past 11 years from 32% of the total county budget to just 19% today. The funding for the health-care program has grown only 16% in the last two years, while other department budgets have grown from a range of 23% in education to 228% in public facilities, a category that includes street improvements and new roads, Alexander said.

To compensate for this, Alexander said, the board should provide more money for health-care services from the county’s discretionary funds.

“I’m not trying to back them into a corner,” Alexander said after the meeting. “But the county must know that there is a lack of money where it is most needed.”

John J. Rette, executive director of the Orange County Medical Assn., told the supervisors that they must show leadership on health-care issues.

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“We have to remind society of its responsibility in health care,” Rette said. “We can’t sit back and allow the system to collapse.”

Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder said that the board had to look at its resources and place more priority on health needs.

“We’ve been dealing with bricks. Now, we have to deal with bodies,” Wieder said.

Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez said during the hearing that other departments, such as the Environmental Management Agency, benefit from other revenue such as fees and fines. He pointed out that the social services and health care agency budgets depend almost entirely on state and federal funding, which the county cannot control.

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“What’s critically important to know is that Orange County has been on the short end of the receiving line for federal and state funds based on the perception that the county is all affluent,” Vasquez said.


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