Don't Apply a Band-Aid for a Scalpel's Job : Reform immigration and Los Angeles' health services won't be so overburdened.

Rep. Elton Gallegly, a Republican, represents Ventura County and is chairman of the bipartisan Congressional Task Force on Immigration Reform

When President Clinton engineered a $364-million bailout of Los Angeles County's troubled health services last month, he did nothing but put a bandage on an open wound.

A better approach would have been to bring a scalpel to the problem: the thousands of illegal immigrants who seek treatment at county medical facilities and leave overburdened taxpayers holding the bag.

I've been an advocate for meaningful immigration reform for years and have heard countless statistics that give evidence to the staggering scope of the problem, particularly in Southern California. An example: More than two-thirds of all the women welcomed into the delivery room at County-USC Medical Center have no legal right to be in this country. That's right. More than 66% of the women giving birth in Los Angeles County public hospitals are illegal immigrants. This is an amazing statistic.

That's only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the medical treatment illegal immigrants can and do receive each day. If the President is truly interested in the long-term preservation of public health care in Los Angeles County, he should finally embrace some of the reforms aimed at reducing the size of our illegal population instead of sniffing at such measures and then trying to find new and better ways of paying for the consequences.

To be sure, the President is to be given credit for his leadership in averting what could only be considered a catastrophic shutdown of county health facilities. But as we breathe a sigh of relief over the system's continued operation, let also discuss how best to address the deeper problem that will continue to plague us: The increasing number of illegal immigrants living and seeking medical treatment in Los Angeles County.

Anyone who doubts the use by the illegal population of our public health care facilities need only look at the days immediately following November's election, when Proposition 187 was overwhelmingly adopted and illegal immigrants mistakenly believed that a trip to the hospital or clinic could lead to deportation. Public facilities that had been literally teeming with patients were turned into virtual ghost towns. It wasn't until the word spread that the coast was clear that the patients and the problems returned.

And this debate isn't about frustrated taxpayers or opportunistic politicians looking for a scapegoat. It's about legal residents who depend on public health care and yet find themselves increasingly cut off from this assistance by those with no legal right to be here. It's about law-abiding taxpayers who play by the rules waiting seven hours for a broken bone to be set or a wound stitched, while those who have manipulated the system continue to consume their unfair share of scarce resources.

I am convinced that local governments should not bear the financial responsibility of providing that emergency care. To this end, I introduced a provision in the legislation before the House Judiciary Committee that will guarantee federal reimbursement to public hospitals that provide emergency medical care to illegal immigrants--with the stipulation that the hospitals verify the status of the patients they treat. This provision will ensure the long-term survival of public health care in Los Angeles, yet the President and his Administration have failed to actively support it.

As the debate over immigration reform moves to the center of the political agenda, I find it baffling and troubling that our President has done little more than talk around the edge of the crisis, making it an occasional part of his geographically targeted rhetoric. He has failed to embrace the solutions that we in Congress have advocated as a way of attacking the core problem. This is a grave shortcoming indeed, particularly to those of us who live in Southern California.

To drop a $364-million rescue package out of Air Force One as part of a West Coast campaign fly-by is nice. To do the heavy lifting necessary to eliminate the need for such dramatic heroics is real leadership.

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