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Clinics File Suit Over Delays in Abortion Funds : Law: A San Diego women’s health center joins a lawsuit charging that the state puts abortion providers at the bottom of its priority list for medical insurance compensation.

From Staff and Wire Reports

Operators of five women’s health centers, including a San Diego clinic, charged Friday that the state puts abortion providers at the bottom of its priority list for medical insurance compensation and asked a federal court to guarantee them equal treatment in the future.

The suit charged that the state’s action violated provisions in the federal Constitution for equal treatment under the law.

“We want to be paid for the Medi-Cal clients that we provided services to,” said Toni Atkins, administrator for San Diego’s Womancare Clinic, a plaintiff in the suit.

“The bigger issue, though, is that this is not the first time abortion care providers have been singled out and discriminated.”

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Mark Merin, a Sacramento attorney representing the five abortion clinics, said he had been told by Elisabeth Brandt, chief counsel for the Department of Health Services, “that there were more worthy recipients” for the money.

Brandt denied making that statement.

“I never put it that way,” Brandt said. “We were in an emergency where employees of long-term care facilities (for the aged) were threatening to walk out. We were thinking of emergencies, and we had no reports that the women’s health clinics had stopped their services.”

“Women are still able to get abortions, even if payments to clinics are delayed 60 to 90 days,” Brandt said.

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The suit charges that the Department of Health Services held up Medi-Cal payments for abortions performed on women with low incomes after the state ran low on money in May, late in the 1989-90 fiscal year that ended June 30.

Atkins said the San Diego clinic has not received $100,000 in Medi-Cal claims since the clinic received its last check on June 11.

“We provide abortions for women who would not otherwise receive any care, and we’re not being reinforced by the state,” she said.

“It’s having a dramatic effect on our budget. We can’t pay our bills or federal employment taxes, and we’ve lost some of our services with medical labs,” Atkins said.

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She said the clinic, where 40% of its patients are Medi-Cal clients, may be forced to close if it doesn’t receive payment.

The legal action also says that, even after the Legislature passed an emergency bill to make up the Medi-Cal deficiencies and Gov. George Deukmejian signed it, the Department of Health Services put abortion services at the bottom of its payment list.

The result was that money provided in the bill, AB 2570, by Assemblyman John Vasconcellos (D-San Jose) was exhausted before the clinics could be paid.

“We can’t pay our landlords or meet our malpractice insurance premiums or pay our employees,” said Shauna Heckert, administrator for four feminist health centers in Northern California.

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Womancare Clinic in San Diego is loosely affiliated with the four clinics as part of the Federation of Feminist Women’s Health Centers.

Defendants include Kenneth Kizer, director of the Department of Health Services, Brandt and other department employees.

The four clinics administered by Heckert in Sacramento, Chico, Redding and Santa Rosa are plaintiffs in the suit, along with Womancare, which has provided health care services in San Diego for 17 years.

The problem of sending the state’s checks to abortion providers appeared Friday to be over.

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A spokesman for Controller Gray Davis said the computer tapes needed to send out the checks were received late Thursday from the health agency. He said the payments would be processed as soon as possible.

Davis was named a defendant in the suit, but Merin said that was merely a technicality, since Davis’s agency is the one that sends out the checks.

The attorney said Davis and his staff cooperated with the women’s clinics in trying to get the Department of Health Services to turn over the payment data.

Heckert said the delayed payments affected not only the five clinics taking part in the suit, but all women’s health centers in California.

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She estimated the number at 200.

Merin said he would seek an injunction if there were any further delays in paying past due Medi-Cal abortion bills.

Otherwise, no date has been set for a court hearing. The suit asks $250,000 in damages and legal costs.

Atkins said of Womancare’s 10,000 patients a year, 3,000 are abortion clients.

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