Bill Barring Denial of Anesthesia Is Signed


Hospitals will be prohibited from denying anesthesia to women during childbirth based on their ability to pay, under a bill signed Sunday by Gov. Pete Wilson.

The bill stems from a case involving a Medi-Cal insurance patient who was denied an epidural while in labor at Northridge Hospital Medical Center in the summer of 1997. An anesthesiologist had demanded that she pay $400 cash for the pain-control procedure--an amount that she could not muster.

Northridge later was cited for breaking six state regulations and ordered to give refunds to as many as 300 women. The state also accused five other Southern California hospitals of demanding cash for the anesthesia although Medi-Cal covers the epidurals.

"It is unconscionable for physicians to withhold pain medication from women in labor simply because their care is covered by Medi-Cal," Wilson said in a statement. "Women entitled to Medi-Cal benefits should receive the same standard of care as women enrolled in private health care plans."

The law takes effect Jan. 1.

An investigation was prompted by reports in The Times that women who were on Medi-Cal had been told they had to pay cash before an epidural would be administered.

It was the case of Ozzie Chavez that provoked much outrage. Chavez went to Northridge Hospital Medical Center to deliver her fifth baby. As she stumbled into the birthing room, her contractions became strong and painful. When she asked for an epidural, a spinal-based form of anesthesia, a nurse said it would cost $400.

The anesthesiologist refused a check and credit cards, Chavez recalled. The birth was more painful than usual because the baby got stuck, requiring the obstetrician to reach into the birth canal. Chavez had been administered no pain relief.

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