Medi-Cal Figures on Immigrants Are Disputed : Health: State audit says costs in county reached $9.3 million last year, but a top area official warns that report may be misleading.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A week before Election Day, state health officials have released an audit concluding that Medi-Cal costs for illegal immigrants in Ventura County have quadrupled since 1989--a figure disputed by the county's top health official and denounced by immigrant advocates as a ploy to whip up support for Proposition 187.

The report, issued Tuesday by the state Health and Welfare Agency, said Medi-Cal expenditures for the county's illegal immigrants went from $2.1 million in 1989 to $9.3 million last year.

During that same period, the report states that the number of Medi-Cal cases grew fifteenfold, from an average of 284 a month to an average of 4,348 a month.

"It's not just solely the case in Ventura County; I can tell you that we have seen this kind of growth statewide," said Shannon Bowman, spokeswoman for the state health agency. "The state cannot afford a program that is growing this quickly, especially when you are providing services to people who break the law to get here."

Medi-Cal is a state-administered program that provides health-care to the poor.

Illegal immigrants are eligible only for so-called restricted Medi-Cal benefits--emergency care and the delivery of babies, costs which are reimbursed in part by the federal government.

Because the undocumented are the only people eligible for those benefits, Bowman said the audit was done simply by tracking the number of restricted Medi-Cal claims submitted by doctors and hospitals in Ventura County.

But Gary Feldman, the county's public health officer, warned that the report could be misleading.

Before the state created the restricted Medi-Cal program in fiscal year 1987-88, Feldman said illegal immigrants received health care that was paid for by the county or private hospitals. Feldman also said he believes many undocumented immigrants may have falsified documents to receive regular Medi-Cal benefits even though they were ineligible.

Since the late 1980s, Feldman said doctors and hospitals have stepped up efforts to determine the legal status of patients in an attempt to funnel illegal immigrants into the restricted Medi-Cal program.

As patients have been shifted into that program, the statistics have skyrocketed, he said.

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In addition, Feldman said rising Medi-Cal expenditures could also be partly attributed to rising medical costs.

"They simply became more visible as the rules changed," Feldman said of illegal immigrants. "But if I was in the state administration, and I was working for some governor looking to get reelected on the back of some proposition, I might put out some scary figures too."

Feldman was referring to the reelection bid of Gov. Pete Wilson and to Proposition 187, the initiative that would deny schooling, non-emergency health care and other public benefits to illegal immigrants.

State health officials denied Tuesday that the release of the report was connected to Wilson's reelection bid or the hotly contested ballot measure.

"Unfortunately, I didn't give that any thought," Bowman said. "But I would have still done it. It's just factual information; it's making data available to the people."

Still, immigrant rights advocates questioned the timing of the report.

"I have a hard time believing that the release of this information at this time isn't politically motivated," legal aid attorney Eileen McCarthy said. "The motivation is to put Prop. 187 over the top and to reelect the governor."

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Statewide, the audit showed that 10 counties account for nearly 70% of the $800 million spent last year by the state on federally mandated health care for illegal immigrants.

Los Angeles County led the way, spending nearly $341 million.

Of the $9.3 million in Medi-Cal expenditures racked up by Ventura County, $8.3 million was for federally mandated health care to the undocumented. The state and federal governments split the cost of that care 50-50.

The other $1 million was for prenatal care to illegal immigrants, a cost picked up solely by the state.

Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) said Tuesday that the state audit merely reaffirms something he has known all along: Ventura County spends a lot of money providing services to illegal immigrants.

"I had a pretty vivid picture of what was going on without looking at the numbers," said Gallegly, a longtime backer of tougher immigration policies. "The fact remains that the federal government has a responsibility to protect the state from this flow or be prepared to pay for it."

But McCarthy said she is upset that the undocumented are being used as fodder in the illegal immigration debate.

"They are one of the most vulnerable segments of our society and they are being used as scapegoats," she said.

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