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Budget Cuts Begin to Hit Where It Hurts : Social agencies: Longer waits for aid are likely and fewer programs will be available as the state reduces its role in providing health and welfare services.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a result of the latest round of budget cuts in human service programs, Wilson Administration officials and others are predicting longer waits, fewer services and a sharply reduced state role in a variety of health and welfare programs.

Services expected to be heavily impacted range from prevention of infant botulism to the monitoring of care for the elderly and policing of day-care centers.

“There is no doubt that the cuts will result in delays in treatment authorization for some Medi-Cal patients,” said Betsy Hite, spokeswoman for the Department of Health Services. “We are being forced to strip down other programs.”

Hite and other Administration officials said that to protect programs that provide direct assistance to the needy, they sought reductions in administrative positions and in programs engaged in data collection, oversight and inspection of child-care centers and homes for the elderly.

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Having already suffered reductions in early and midsummer budget cuts, officials of nonprofit organizations and others expressed alarm that the cuts would wipe out important health services.

The state Health and Welfare Agency disclosed its latest round of cuts last week, saying it must reduce spending an additional $60 million and lay off about 400 employees to stay within the $55.7-billion state budget enacted in July by Gov. Pete Wilson and the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

Kassy Perry, an official of the Health and Welfare Agency, said the budget cuts had been contemplated for months, but became necessary when state employee groups, Controller Gray Davis and Democratic leaders in the Assembly blocked Administration efforts to bring down state spending through salary and benefit reductions.

“We reached a point where we just had to go forward and bring spending down,” Perry said. “When we have more dollars, we hope to be able to go back in and shore up some of these programs.”

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Employee groups angrily countered that they are being made “scapegoats” for the cuts by Administration officials who need “someone to blame.”

Children’s programs were hit especially hard as the cuts were spread between the departments of Health Services, Social Services, Mental Health and Developmental Services.

Under the plan, the child-care ombudsman program, which settles disputes and oversees day-care licensing, will be cut from 17 employees to four. A number of administrators with responsibility for the $5-billion-plus Aid to Families with Dependent Children program are being reassigned. The agency said the move “will slow the regulation process and reduce California’s role in the development of federal policy and regulations.”

In addition, staffing levels in child abuse prevention, adoption and in-home support services are being or already have been “substantially reduced.” The state also is returning the Foster Family Home Recruitment Program back to Los Angeles County. The state had taken over the program last year because of “administrative failures,” but now is dropping it back in the county’s lap. The state will continue to be responsible for the licensing of foster homes.

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On top of that, the state’s audit program for foster-care homes is being eliminated, meaning that group homes will have no state oversight.

James P. Steyer, president of Children Now, an advocacy group, called the cuts affecting children’s programs “penny-wise and pound-foolish,” contending that “whenever you balance the budget on the backs of kids you are bound to pay later.”

He added: “In this case we are talking about some of the most vulnerable kids programs--foster homes, regional centers for the developmentally disabled, child welfare--programs helping kids who have the least voice but who are in the most need of care and protection.”

Other cuts include a 40% reduction in the birth defects monitoring program, which tracks birth defects to determine whether there are environmental or other causes of problem pregnancies, and a 30% trim in the Cancer Tumor Registry program, which collects data in each California county in part to determine whether there are unusual incidents of cancer in certain regions.

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Further budget cuts are directed at food safety and water quality programs and are expected to delay the adoption of legally required drinking water standards and health evaluations of new contaminants found in drinking water. The cuts also are expected to slow down testing of food for pesticide residues, chemicals and other contaminants.

The agency has warned that the public can “expect delays” in searches for historic or dated records, such as heirloom birth certificates, because of staffing reductions in the vital records section.

Research collection for the infant botulism program will be eliminated. Health officials say 40 infants died of botulism last year of at least 75 reported cases. The program was created in 1976 to devise strategies to head off these cases.

There also will be a 20% reduction in administrative oversight of programs for the mentally retarded--an action state officials acknowledged “severely reduces the department’s ability to effectively and efficiently manage these programs.”

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Officials of the nonprofit March of Dimes organization said plans to impose a 40% budget cut on the state’s birth defects monitoring program will be “a disaster” and may end data gathering in Los Angeles, San Diego and other counties.

Katherine L. Kneer, lobbyist for the March of Dimes, said that “17,000 kids are going to be born with birth defects in California this year. If you don’t start investing in the future, the problem isn’t going to get any better.”

She described the cut as “instant decapitation,” and said “we will have to eliminate as many as 30 counties” from the monitoring program.

Kneer said a San Diego County program that investigates the effects of electromagnetic fields may have to be scrapped.

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Hite said one program to be protected will be the tracking of the effect on pregnancies of the railroad pesticide spill last July near the Northern California community of Dunsmuir.

Administration officials threatened making the cuts for months, and gave the go-ahead because of the lack of progress in collective bargaining with state employees and because the Legislature adjourned for the year without ratifying a proposed contract with the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. That contract would have required 18,000 prison guards to take a 5% pay cut and saved the state $35 million. Davis also blocked efforts to cut the pay of 25,000 supervisors in state service, an action that would have saved the state another $35 million this year.

Employee groups argue that the cuts are not necessary because attrition has produced 20,000 vacancies in state service, well beyond the Administration’s original goals.


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