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Disability Rights Advocates Sue to Save Rancho Los Amigos

Times Staff Writer

A coalition of disability rights advocates filed a class-action suit Thursday seeking to stop Los Angeles County from closing the renowned Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, says the closure would violate the federal Americans With Disabilities Act and other legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disabilities, because many patients would have nowhere else to turn for treatment.

Saying they had no choice, county supervisors voted in January to close Rancho because of a looming budget deficit in the Health Services Department.

At a news conference on Thursday across the street from the center, attorneys and advocates for the disabled were flanked by Rancho patients who related stories of tragic accidents, near-death experiences and the physical and emotional rehabilitation many found at Rancho Los Amigos.

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The lawyers in the case say they are suing on behalf of about 5,000 Rancho patients who are recipients of Medi-Cal, the government insurance program for the poor and disabled.

Frightened into silence by the swirl of media, 8-year-old Antonio Gaxiola of Wilmington, who was born with muscular dystrophy and uses a ventilator to breathe, let his father, Manuel, read a statement he had written. “Who would take care of me and the other kids?” the boy wrote.

Tony, a third-grader at Fries Avenue School, has received intensive outpatient services through the neuromuscular disease clinic at Rancho.

Another Rancho patient, Susan Rodde, who has multiple disabilities and uses a wheelchair, told how Rancho once flew in a specialist from South Africa to perform back surgery.

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“It is shameful that the state and the county are willing to do this [closure], since it puts so many people at risk of illness and even death,” Rodde said.

State and county health officials said they had not seen the suit and declined to comment.

But county Health Director Thomas Garthwaite has said in the past that although Rancho performs miracles, it is far too expensive to run. Nearly a third of its patients are indigent, and the county estimates it would have to pay $15 million to $30 million a year just to cover uninsured patients.

The county projects it will save about $194 million over the next three years by closing the center.

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There is another possibility: The California Community Foundation hopes to save the hospital by turning it into a nonprofit.

A foundation study determined that Rancho could be a fund-raising powerhouse like other rehabilitation hospitals of its stature, and foundation President Jack Shakely is scheduled to report to the Board of Supervisors by April 1 on funding commitments he has procured.

Disability advocates maintain that the county’s mandate to serve disabled patients exists regardless of whether Rancho becomes a nonprofit

“The health-care system is in crisis,” acknowledged Eve Hill, director of the Western Law Center for Disability Rights. “But whatever the cost-benefit analysis of a life, the answer cannot be to deny health care completely to a community based on disability, race, gender, poverty or any other characteristic.”

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She added that if the county cuts services it must do so more equitably.

“We have plaintiffs who couldn’t get an X-ray because another hospital didn’t have the equipment to move them from the chair to the table,” said Paula Pearlman, also from the law center. “We’re not asking for special benefits, just what the law provides [for Medi-Cal patients]. The bottom line is, these services are mandatory.”

Also joining in the suit are Protection and Advocacy Inc., the Western Center on Law and Poverty, the National Senior Citizens Law Center and the law firm of Kirkland & Ellis.


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