You're Suing Los Angeles

This may be the first that you’ve heard of it, but the fact of the matter is you’re suing Los Angeles-and you’re winning.

But that’s not good news. Winning may cost you money. It definitely will cost people in Los Angeles some freedom.

This is a story that began at the ballot box.

In 1994, Californians voted 59% to 41% for Proposition 187. "Essentially," the Los Angeles Times reported then, "the proposition would bar illegal immigrants from public schools, and prohibit public agencies from providing them with non-emergency health and social services."

An illegal alien showing up at a California hospital with a medical emergency would still get care-courtesy of the taxpayers. But an illegal alien who sought non-emergency care would have to pay for it himself.

Prop. 187 was immediately challenged in federal court-the supposition being that the Constitution required Californians to pay the education and non-emergency health care costs of foreign nationals illegally in the state. In 1995, a federal judge struck down the proposition. California appealed. But Democratic California Gov. Gray Davis dropped the appeal in 1999. Prop. 187 was voided.

As California’s illegal alien population grew, so did the strain on public health services in Los Angeles County.

In January, the county Board of Supervisors voted to rein in costs by shutting down Rancho Los Amigos (a hospital that specializes in rehabilitating people with brain and spinal cord injuries) and cutting 100 beds from County-USC Medical Center. On May 5, Dr. Thomas Garthwaite, director of the county’s Department of Health Services (DHS), which runs the hospitals, submitted a report to the board indicating that keeping Rancho open and not cutting the 100 beds from USC would cause DHS to run a cumulative deficit of $993.2 million between now and fiscal year 2007-08.

At the request of Supervisor Mike Antonovich, Garthwaite also submitted a report on April 3 assessing the cost to DHS of providing health care to illegal immigrants. "We estimate the net cost to DHS of treating undocumented aliens to be about $340 million," wrote Garthwaite. According to DHS spokesman John Wallace, this annual sum of $340 million is the cost DHS pays for treating illegal aliens over and above reimbursements it receives from the state and federal governments for providing emergency, prenatal and birthing care to illegal immigrants.

This means the massive deficit projected for DHS between now and 2008 is less than what DHS is likely to pay in that period to provide non-emergency health care to illegal aliens. These are costs the county would not incur if Prop. 187 were enforced.

But it gets worse.

In March, Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles and the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles joined with the American Civil Liberties Union in suing the county to stop it from shutting Rancho and cutting the beds from USC. The federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC) funds both Neighborhood Legal Services and the Legal Aid Foundation.

Last week, federal Judge Florence-Marie Cooper issued a temporary order in the case stopping the county from making the cuts. According to the Los Angeles Times, Cooper said the cuts would cause "dangerous delays of needed medical treatment resulting in unnecessary deaths, strokes, heart attacks, amputations, renal failure, blindness, seizures, severe pain and increased risk of infection."

I asked LSC Communications Director Eric Kleiman how much money the federal government gives to the Legal Aid Foundation of L.A. and the Neighborhood Legal Services of L.A. and whether their suit against the county is in keeping with LSC’s vision. They received $6.3 million and $3.2 million respectively in 2002, Kleiman responded by e-mail.

"The closure of the Los Angeles area’s only publicly funded rehabilitation hospital, and the removal of 100 beds from the county’s largest medical center, would have left countless low-income people in and around Los Angeles with nowhere to turn when faced with urgent health care problems," wrote Kleiman. "The litigation filed by two LSC grantees to prevent these cuts is intended to prevent a catastrophe for poor people who rely on these facilities to stay in good health-and, indeed, in some instances, to stay alive. This suit falls well within our grantees’ congressional mandate to serve the legal needs of the area’s low-income population, and its merits were endorsed by the federal judge who issued the order in their favor."

If you’re a taxpayer, this is your lawsuit-and you’re winning. Meanwhile, trapped between a judge’s ruling on Prop. 187 and a judge’s ruling here, Los Angelenos are losing not only money, but also their recourse to representative government.