Representatives of local healthcare organizations accused Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of putting tax breaks for the wealthy before funding initiatives that assist families who have little or no access to health care at a press conference Thursday, September 6th, at Burton Chace Park in Marina del Rey.

During last month’s budget settlement, Schwarzenegger slashed approximately $527 million from programs that would have assisted various community health clinics that serve many of California’s estimated more than six million uninsured residents.

Using Marina del Rey as the backdrop to voice their dismay at the governor’s decision to include as part of the budget a loophole that will allow airplane, recreational vehicle and yacht buyers to avoid paying taxes on their purchases as long as they are out of state for more than 90 days, representatives of various clinics and healthcare organizations were unwavering in their criticism of the governor.

“Access to needed health and human services shouldn’t be up for grabs over tax cuts for the rich and famous,” said Lynn Kersey, executive director of Maternal Health Access.

Caroline Rivas, policy director of Community Health Councils, a nonprofit health, policy and advocacy organization, said, “These cuts are a step backward for health reform at a time when policymakers are working to solve the uninsured and healthcare crisis in California.”

Rivas’s group has conducted outreach to over 100,000 families in Los Angeles County, and the money that was taken away “would have made a good dent if we could have reached many of those families,” she said.

“It was a little dispiriting, what the governor did after hearing earlier this year how important insuring all children in the state was to him,” she added. “It seems like a step backward.”

Elizabeth Benson-Forer, executive director of the Venice Family Health Clinic, said, “I find it to be a rather odd way to set priorities, having spent the better part of a year talking to fabulous staff from the governor’s office on healthcare reform.

“To find out that some of our most vital funding was cut that would actually help that reform is staggering.”

Benson-Forer said the cuts to the Venice Family Health Clinic are the worst she has seen in over 15 years.

Kersey said, “While the gamesmanship during the budget process eliminated these services, the state Legislature and governor have an opportunity to repair the damage by incorporating mental health and enrollment assistance as part of a comprehensive health reform package for California.”

Benson-Forer said, “We are continuing to provide our services as we always do. We are scrambling a bit behind the scenes, trying to figure out what to do and how to do it.”

The Venice Family Clinic will continue to seek donors for its Medi-Cal outreach, one of the clinic’s most important programs.

“We spent five years building that program, and we don’t want to see it destroyed,” said Benson-Forer.

On Monday, September 10th, after the Legislature passed Assembly Bill (AB) 8, a healthcare bill backed mainly by Democratic lawmakers, Schwarzenegger vowed to veto it when it arrived on his desk. AB 8 seeks to significantly expand affordable health coverage for all Californians.

“I applaud all the hard work that has gone into efforts to reform California’s health care system, but I cannot sign AB 8 because it would only put more pressure on an already broken health care system,” Schwarzenegger said in a statement after the legislation’s passage was announced. “AB 8 does not protect consumers because insurers would still be allowed to deny coverage, leaving Californians vulnerable to loss or denial of coverage when they need it most.”

The governor claimed that the bill misses the mark of providing everyone with insurance.

“First and foremost, AB 8 does not cover everyone,” the governor said. “Any reform that leaves millions without health insurance and fails to address our dangerously overcrowded emergency rooms simply maintains a broken system.”

Schwarzenegger announced his intention to ask state lawmakers to join him in a special session to draft a bill that he and both parties can agree on.

“We have made tremendous progress on this issue during the past session and have found considerable common ground,” Schwarzenegger said. “That is why I intend to call a special session of the Legislature so that we can finish the job of truly reforming our healthcare system. I know that legislative leaders are willing to get the job done.”

After learning of Schwarzenegger’s plan to call a special session of the Legislature, Benson-Forer said, “I think that is a very good idea. Maybe more information can come out of this and we can have a better outcome with much better coverage.”

Benson-Forer said she thought AB 8 was going in the right direction “but it didn’t do enough.”

Kersey also said, “We’re encouraged by the call for a special session. Everyone who is concerned about [the loss of healthcare and social service funds] will be raising these concerns when the Legislature meets to discuss healthcare reform.”

Making mental health and enrollment assistance components of any reform bill would “show good faith on the part of the governor and the Legislature that they are serious about providing these much needed services” for hundreds of thousands of families, said Kersey.

Benson-Forer sees a connection between health-related services and another service that was drastically sliced during the budget negotiations — transportation. Funding that had been earmarked for mass transit projects were taken away by state legislators and Schwarzenegger to reduce the deficit, putting hundreds of light rail, bus and freeway improvements in doubt.

“Both transportation funds and social services healthcare funds help the same group of people,” Benson-Forer pointed out. “The people that I serve need mass transit to get to work and they need mass transit to get to my clinics, just like I need the healthcare funding to provide the care when they get to my clinic.”

This domino effect can cause fissures in the everyday lives of people who are often outside the long-range view of state politicians, Benson-Forer believes.

“I don’t know if the Legislature truly gets how interrelated transportation and social service needs are,” Benson-Forer said, “and maybe because they feel that the constituency that benefits from these funds is more invisible to them, they are able” to make drastic cuts to these programs.

“It really destabilizes a group of people who are already having a hard time anyway.”