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Migrant Groups Assail Plan to Cut Prenatal Care

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Physicians and immigrant advocates opposed to Gov. Pete Wilson’s plan to terminate state-subsidized prenatal care for illegal immigrants turned out Wednesday for a judicially mandated public hearing in downtown Los Angeles on the emotionally charged issue.

“It is utterly astonishing to me that what began as ‘breaking the chain of dependency’ has led to an attack on the most defenseless segment of our society, pregnant women and children,” said Dr. Brian Johnston, president of the L.A. County Medical Assn.

The Wilson plan, prompted by the sweeping welfare overhaul approved by Congress last year, would cut state aid to about 70,000 undocumented women statewide, more than half of them in Los Angeles County. The cuts would take effect July 1.

The hearing was part of a time-consuming regulatory review process ordered by a Superior Court judge in San Francisco after the Wilson administration had sought to put the changes into effect as an “emergency” measure without extensive public comment. The judge found no emergency, setting the stage for Wednesday’s hearing.

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During the morning session, the first of two scheduled hearings this month, critics condemned the policy as a shortsighted, politically motivated maneuver that will ultimately raise public costs in emergency rooms and intensive care units.

Over and over, activists noted that every $1 invested in prenatal care has been shown to save $3 in subsequent costs in pregnancy and birth complications, while preserving the health of mothers and children and providing a critical screen against sexually transmitted diseases and other ailments. The infants who benefit are U.S. citizens by birth.

“It is unconscionable for a civilized society to allow pregnant women who lack financial resources to go without needed medical care during their pregnancies,” said County Supervisor Gloria Molina.

The state offered no witnesses at the hearing, which was designed to elicit public testimony on the issue. Wilson did not appear, although he was just a few blocks away at the dedication ceremony for the new Twin Towers jail.

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Janice Ploeger Glaab, a spokeswoman for the California Health and Welfare Agency, said later that the administration’s view is that the state simply can no longer afford to subsidize care for people in the country unlawfully.

“It’s important that we spend our limited resources on people who are here legally,” Ploeger Glaab said in a telephone interview from Sacramento.

California officials estimate that the cutoff will save taxpayers about $69 million annually in care subsidies now provided under Medi-Cal, the public insurance program for the poor. California has opted to provide the aid since 1988 under state law.

Gov. Wilson has never disputed the wisdom of prenatal care, which he has praised as a crucial preventive measure. But the governor says public aid for illegal immigrants is an incentive for unlawful immigration.

The welfare revisions passed by Congress last year mandated that states and local governments cease most nonemergency aid provided to illegal immigrants, unless states pass laws specifically authorizing the aid.

That provision prompted the governor to issue a sweeping executive order last summer directing all departments to devise means to bar assistance, including prenatal care, to illegal immigrants.

As the public forum unfolded downtown, Magdalena Nevarez was completing a postpartum exam at the Community Health Foundation clinic in East Los Angeles. Nevarez, 25, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, is the mother of three young children--all born healthy, she says, thanks to the state-sponsored prenatal care regimen.

“I think health care should be a right for everyone, whether you have papers or not,” said Nevarez, a former minimum-wage worker in a downtown toy factory. “I think taking this little bit of help away is unjust.”

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