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Los Angeles City Council to challenge health department initiative

AIDS Healthcare Foundation Brooklyn pride parade. (14136)
AIDS Healthcare Foundation Brooklyn pride parade.

The Los Angeles City Council voted to challenge the legality of a ballot measure to re-establish a municipal health department, which officials say could burden the city with more than $260 million in set-up and annual operation costs.

The City Council also signed off on placing the initiative on the June 3 general election ballot, but has until January to call off the election if the city defeats the proposed ordinance in court. Today was the deadline for the council to certify the initiative petition, which the city clerk qualified in May after the measures’ sponsors collected nearly 70,000 signatures.

The City Council earlier this month voted to oppose the initiative, arguing the plan could prove costly.

The 91-vote to take legal action — Councilman Bill Rosendahl was the lone dissenter — came after the city administrative officer expressed concern that the costs of running a health department would exacerbate a potential $153.4 million deficit in the 2014-15 fiscal year budget.

City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana warned in a report issued last week that paying for the department “would likely require the city to either … submit an initiative to the voters of the city to increase taxes to fund the department … greatly reduce the scope of public health services currently provided by the county, and/or … reduce other General Fund services, such as police hiring, fire service restoration, and street resurfacing.”

The election to decide if Los Angeles should set up its own health agency would cost $4.6 million to hold, according to Santana.

The measure is sponsored by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which was also behind county and city measures to require condoms in porn film, and four other proponents.

The county’s system, which handles services for 87 other cities, is stretched too thinly to adequately respond to public health risks, according to the AHF President Michael Weinstein.

Los Angeles dissolved its own health department after deciding in 1964 to have the county handle public health in order to save on costs and centralize services.

AHF spokesman Ged Kenslea contended there is enough money available for Los Angeles to run its own health agency, saying the city provides 60 percent of the revenue to the county health department, but only gets 40 percent of the services.

With its own health agency, the city could keep its “entire share of revenue brought in, allowing the city to better fund its own public health services. This revenue comes from health fees already collected by the city, as well as state and federal grants,” he said, saying the city would actually be able to get $360 million annually to cover costs.

Miki Jackson, a policy consultant for the foundation, told the City Council the initiative would start a conversation about public health.

“We really need this to have a wide and deep dialogue. We don’t think public health has been given its due,” she said.

If approved, the measure would give the city 120 days to establish the health department, far less than the one to two years Santana said would actually be needed.

County Chief Executive Officer William Fujioka, who recently told city officials the initiative could prove “disastrous,” said today Los Angeles would be joining other municipalities that run their own health departments — such as Long Beach and Pasadena — but are not full-service agencies.

“Those health departments do not offer the full scope of services we do,” Fujioka said.

Under the ballot measure, the city would be barred from contracting with the county for any health services.

“Even though the financial impact is enormous, think about the health impact,” Fujioka told the council. “That’s what you should be focused on.”

The ballot measure comes amid a rancorous series of battles between between the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and the county, with the two groups locking horns in recent years over the health department’s competitive bidding process, contract payments and enforcement of the porn film condom law.

The county is in the process of trying to collect $1.75 million from the AHF that it says the nonprofit overbilled for services it provides to HIV and AIDS patients, based on a 2010 audit.

The foundation filed a lawsuit last December seeking an injunction against enforcing that audit, charging that it was part of a “retaliatory campaign” against the nonprofit for publicly criticizing the county on a number of issues.

In January, the foundation took out a full page ad in area newspapers, accusing the county’s health department of a lack of accountability and insider dealing and calling on residents to demand reform.

The foundation charges that the health department has issued contracts for health services without soliciting competitive bids as required by law.

“The dangerous practices of insider dealing and granting contracts without the required bidding process must be curbed for the sake of Los Angeles County residents,” Weinstein said at the time.

Kenslea said today the ballot initiative is a “campaign for the city of Los Angeles rather than against the county.”

The initiative’s proponents have seen how “Los Angeles residents are getting shortchanged in delivery of crucial public health services while also subsidizing wealthier cities throughout the county, many of which may not have as high a disease burden,” he said.