Fresno judge hears argument opposing continued undocumented immigrant health care

The Fresno BeeMarch 5, 2014 

Fresno County is paying for medical care it should not have to under state law, a lawyer for the county argued while defending a county policy that would end medical services for Fresno County's poorest residents.

Attorney Jerome Behrens said Wednesday that the county should not have to follow a 30-year-old court order that requires the county to pay for a medically indigent services program that also provides coverage for undocumented immigrants.

Behrens' arguments came on the heels of a tentative ruling against the county's case by Fresno County Superior Court Judge Donald Black.

Black ruled last week that the county's previous arguments do not justify dissolving that 1984 order. Wednesday's hearing was scheduled to give Behrens the opportunity to sway the judge's ruling.

Behrens said undocumented immigrants can get primary medical and prenatal care through federally qualified health clinics and emergency care in a hospital.

He said there are 26 federally qualified clinics in Fresno County.

The care that undocumented immigrants can't get is described as "specialty care."

Behrens cited the California case of a Ukrainian woman who was in the process of seeking asylum when she tried to sign up for welfare. In 1996, a state appellate court overturned a Solano County court ruling, saying that since her asylum had not been granted yet, the woman did not qualify for welfare benefits under the federal-state Aid for Dependent Children program.

During Wednesday's hearing, Behrens said that health care for the undocumented requires a legislative solution. He cited state Sen. Ricardo Lara's bill to allow access to health care coverage for undocumented immigrants.

Lara said that almost a million undocumented California residents are without health insurance. About 4,500 undocumented immigrants in Fresno County don't have health insurance. The annual cost to the county of their care averages $5,000.

The judge's comments to Behrens were encouraging to Mona Tawatao, lawyer for Clinica Sierra Vista, which oversees clinics in Fresno County.

When the judge asked for her input, she gave no presentation.

Fresno County has a legal obligation to "preserve and protect the public health," she said after the hearing.

By dismantling the medically indigent services program, Tawatao said, the county would end a program essential to families that need health care and would demonstrate its inability to ensure public health.

Fresno County supervisors say they intend to appeal the judge's decision if it mirrors his tentative ruling that the county must continue its medically indigent services program.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6166, mbenjamin@fresnobee.com or @beebenjamin on Twitter.

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