IMAGINE DODGER STADIUM FILLED TO the brim. Fifty-two thousand souls. Now imagine a line of 50 Dodger Stadiums -- stretching from Chavez Ravine down through maybe the Miracle Mile -- each and every one with every seat taken.
Two and a half million people, one out of four L.A. County residents -- disproportionately children -- have no health insurance. Enough to fill Dodger Stadium 50 times over.
Los Angeles is ground zero of the national health-care crisis.
And this week, as we are being ginned up for a self-indulgent commemoration of the anniversary of September 11 -- a great national pageant celebrating our supposed moral superiority -- the county will shut down the first two of 11 community clinics and four school-based health centers slated for imminent closure. Hundreds of thousands of the uninsured, the indigent and the working poor have only these facilities to rely upon for primary care. Or had.
Apart from the clinics, the county is also slashing 84,000 annual childhood immunizations, 38,000 annual visits for treatment of communicable diseases, and thousands of screenings for tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases. All of these facilities and services could be kept open with less than the annual pay of one rogue CEO.
But, what the hell, this is America and hooray for the Red, White and Blue.
The last few weeks have seen boisterous and disruptive demonstrations by health-worker unions directed against the five members of the Board of Supes. But the unions have their own agenda -- protecting their jobs. When sacrifice is forced upon all of us, are we being asked to save every single Service Employees International Union (SEIU) job at the possible cost of imploding the entire county health safety net? Let's hope not.
Blaming the supervisors alone for this tragedy is far too facile and a tad opportunistic. They have had damn little margin for maneuver as the county faces a $700 million health-budget shortfall over the next three years. The supervisors are but the lowest pols on the totem pole, the poor jamokes charged with managing this shameful mess, the byproduct of a greater American society that fancies itself the most advanced in the world -- but niggardly refuses to provide even basic health care for tens of millions.
For more blame, go no further back than an even decade, when a newly inaugurated William Jefferson Clinton, flanked by a Democrat-controlled Congress, and blessed with what seemed like a golden historic opportunity to pass national health care, instead bungled and fumbled the issue. Hillary and a pack of insurance lobbyists concocted a proposed reform so complicated, so bureaucratic, so downright unfathomable that they lost the political battle to an ersatz TV couple named Harry and Louise and set us all back Godknowshowmany decades. Big Bill might have been getting the Oval Office blowjobs, but we were the ones who got royally reamed.
On the more local level, give at least some credit for this disaster to the miserly suburban home-moaners who passed Proposition 13 and set in motion the strangulation of our hospitals and our schools.
And, yes, the county supervisors, too. They sat in splendid immobile denial during the first half of the '90s and fecklessly watched the red ink swell. And when the system finally collapsed in 1995, only a federal bailout -- in the form of a Medicare-reimbursement waiver -- allowed its reconstruction and partial reform.
Now the county once again wants the feds to waive those reimbursements. And if Washington agrees, the rickety network of neighborhood outpatient clinics could be kept at least partially running. So the supes have come up with a comprehensive plan, an honorable and decent compromise, to keep some of the lights on, some of the beds open, and attenuate and more equally distribute the pain of austerity.
It's bad enough that the county has to beg this from a Washington claque of indifferent Bush Republicans. But an even greater immediate obstacle is none other than our number-one Usual Suspect, Governor Gray Davis. Davis has simply refused to forward -- as required -- the county plan on to Washington. Even though his election opponent, Bill Simon Jr., is a walking political cadaver, Davis remains phobically risk-adverse and is clearly trying to run out the clock on this issue -- avoiding dealing with it before the November balloting.
Until this past week, his staff had one flimsy reason after another for not so much as meeting with the desperate supervisors who had come knocking on Davis' door. Hiding behind the excuse that the county plan lacked details, Davis out-and-out stonewalled. But every day that Davis dithers, that many more hundreds and thousands of the needy and the sick go unattended. "Yes, it's time to go after the governor," says Marsha Temple, an attorney and a volunteer member of the Venice Family Clinic board. "All he's doing is stalling for his own political reasons."
Theories abound as to the governor's despicable posture. He's always been a cheapskate on health care, some critics say. And they think Davis is worried that if he sits down to actually negotiate with Washington on behalf of L.A., the feds might just ask him to ante up as well -- like in 2000, when California had to pitch in $300 million to keep our local care system open. Other wags contend that Davis' attitude is a sop to organized labor. He's been leaning toward vetoing the farm-labor bill now before him. So, the critics say, Davis may think he can soothe ruffled unionists by sandbagging the county plan and at least temporarily forestalling SEIU layoffs.
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BUT OF ALL THE THEORIES ABOUT Davis, I like Temple's the best. It's the one that most neatly fits the icily calculating Governor Davis I have come to know. "I think it's that no one has shown him yet just exactly what he'd get out of making the deal with Washington," she says. "After all, who does he fear? Who has his ear? Who can hurt him?"
Nobody I can think of. Except the electorate. But that hardly seems in the offing. To think there are actually some people out there campaigning for this sorry fellow is nothing short of mind-boggling.
Meanwhile, the clinics are starting to go down like a row of dominoes. As a last-gasp measure, the county supervisors have placed a measure on the November ballot that would raise local property taxes a paltry 3 cents per square foot. Yet the $175 million in additional revenue could keep a dozen clinics open and operating. The cost to the average homeowner would be about $42 a year -- or $3.56 a month. Again, thanks to the handiwork of the "tax-cutters," the measure needs a two-thirds majority to pass. Two months from now we'll find out if there are that many homeowners who -- in support of the needy -- will be willing to assess themselves a monthly sum equivalent to one 9-inch Dodger Dog.