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healthcarerally.jpgThousands of doctors, nurses, unionized health care workers and Medi-Cal patients flocked to the Capitol on Tuesday to protest possible cuts to the Medi-Cal program.

Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget calls for a 10 percent reduction in payment to Medi-Cal providers, a move that opponents say would reduce the poorest patients' access to healthcare. He has shown no signs of backing down from the proposed cut.

The "We Care for California" Coalition, which includes health care providers, insurance firms and associations representing doctors and hospitals, organized more than 100 buses to bring protesters from across California to the rally.

Dave Regan, president of Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West, called upon SEIU-UHW members at the rally to make their voices heard to legislators.

"We deserve better than politics as usual. Better than the politics of disenfranchisement, the politics of erosion of care, the politics of saying 'it's somebody else's problem,'" Regan told the crowd. "And if we can't persuade the governor, we need to find two-thirds of this legislative body who know what the right thing is."

Several lawmakers came on-stage periodically to sign a petition against the proposed 10 percent cut. One bill in the Legislature, Assembly Bill 900 by Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, would cut reimbursement rates by as little as 1 percent. He told the crowd his bill would keep the "safety net" for older Californians in place.

"These are our parents, our dads and mothers, our grandparents, people who gave so much their whole lives, and now they need the most critical care," Alejo said. "Now, with the 10 percent cuts, some of these hospitals all over California are closing down, and that is what we are fighting."

Mary Ellinger, executive director of the Tuolumne County Medical Society, said she experienced these hardships first hand in her battle to keep Tuolumne County clinics open.

"We are trying to expand access to care under the Affordable Care Act, when they are trying to cut reimbursement for Medi-Cal providers, which is already pathetic," Ellinger said. "We are the biggest state, with the biggest population, and the lowest reimbursement rate. It's going to be very hard to sustain the cuts."

Julian Gomez, who works as a laboratory technician with Kaiser Permanente, traveled close to 400 miles from Downey to attend the rally. He cited the universal need for healthcare as his motivation.

"I see a lot of patients where I wouldn't know if they were on Medi-Cal or not," Gomez said. "Healthcare is something we all need, from a very young age to the very old."

But H.D. Palmer, spokesman for Brown's Department of Finance, said the cuts are warranted by the state's financial situation. Palmer said the reduced payment rates in the governor's May budget plan would save $458.8 million in the fiscal year that starts July 1 and $725 million the following year.

"One of the reasons we have gotten to a point where the budget is projected to be in balance is because the state has made reductions year by year," Palmer said. "We have had multi-issue budget gaps year after year, and we don't want to repeat the mistakes of the past."

Palmer acknowledged, however, that ensuring a high quality of Medi-Cal coverage remained an important factor in budget decisions.

"The state is committed to ensuring quality access to care for all of its healthcare members," Palmer said.

PHOTO: Cyrelle Andrews of Los Angeles gives Gov. Jerry Brown a thumbs down as she listens to Dave Regan, president of the SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West, decry proposed cuts to Medi-Cal at the "We are Medi-Cal" Day on the west steps of the Capitol on Tuesday. The Sacramento Bee/Hector Amezcua



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