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OLIVE VIEW : Now Comes the Hard Part: Paying the Bills

OLIVE VIEW, Out of the rubble: First of Three Parts

March 16, 1986|RICHARD SIMON | Times Staff Writer

Olive View is back.

Fifteen years after the Sylmar earthquake destroyed the county hospital in the northeastern San Fernando Valley, a new Olive View Medical Center has risen on the same site. It is the last major institution to recover from the earthquake of 1971.

The new hospital, dedicated Saturday, is expected to open in late April. When fully operational, it will return a full-fledged county hospital to the Valley.

In a three-day series that begins today, The Times examines Olive View's re-emergence from the rubble of the quake. The series also assesses what the opening of the huge concrete and steel structure will mean to Valley residents.

Olive View Medical Center, rebuilt at last after it was destroyed in the Feb. 9, 1971, earthquake, was welcomed back to Sylmar Saturday amid uncertainty over its future funding.

But that didn't dampen Saturday's festivities, as nearly 1,200 people gathered on the same grounds as the former hospital to celebrate the long-awaited completion of the $120-million, six-story glass and steel building set against the San Gabriel Mountains.

A beaming Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who for the last six years has steered the project through stormy political waters, told a group of well-wishers: "It's taken a lot of hard work, a lot of time. But the baby has been delivered."

Antonovich was among a dozen local politicians who praised the efforts that resulted in the rebuilding of the San Fernando Valley's first full-fledged county hospital. The new 350-bed hospital will replace Mid-Valley Hospital in Van Nuys, an aging 123-bed facility bought by the county for temporary use after the 1971 earthquake.

Forced at the last minute into the hospital's huge warehouse because of blustery weather, the crowd included hospital employees, local residents and equestrians who rode their horses to the event. During a 90-minute ceremony, they were read a letter from President Reagan, who said the dedication was an "especially moving occasion for me" because his mother, Nelle Wilson Reagan, worked as a volunteer in the early days of Olive View when it was a tuberculosis hospital.

Funding Problem

With the celebration now behind them, supervisors will have to decide how they are going to fund Olive View's costly operations in light of a projected $250-million deficit in the county's budget for the next two years.

There is enough money to open the medical center late next month and offer the same level of services currently provided at Mid-Valley Hospital.

But Olive View Administrator Douglas Bagley said the budget shortfall threatens to leave the new 506,690-square-foot facility only about half-used.

"What you might see is that growth would be delayed," Bagley said. "The question is: 'Will it be slowed to none at all the first year?' "

Besides taking over Mid-Valley patients, Olive View will serve patients who have been forced to travel to County-USC Medical Center in East Los Angeles because of overcrowding and the unavailability of services at Mid-Valley.

Eventually, Olive View is to handle 300,000 patient visits a year--about 2 1/2 times the number at Mid-Valley, which will close as a hospital once Olive View opens. This will cost the county about $118 million a year, nearly double what it now costs to run Mid-Valley.

When Olive View opens in late April, it will, however, operate at only a slightly higher level than Mid-Valley because of a plan to phase-in the new services over two years. An exact date has not been set for the opening because of uncertainty about when government officials will complete inspections.

Unless additional money is found, supervisors will have to cut existing county programs to come up with the additional money needed to fund Olive View, delay plans to add services at the new hospital or do both, county budget officials said.

Politically, it means that supervisors who supported Olive View's construction may feel differently about funding the hospital's operations, knowing the decision could take away money for services in their districts.

"Some of my good colleagues who supported the reconstruction should now expect to have declining resources spread even thinner to operate this facility," said Supervisor Pete Schabarum, who opposed rebuilding Olive View because of the cost.

Awaiting Recommendations

Schabarum and Antonovich's other three colleagues on the board said they are waiting for county Administrative Officer James C. Hankla's budget recommendations later this month before committing themselves to a specific level of funding for the new hospital.

The budget for 1986-87 will be adopted this summer.

"There is no point in building it if you're not going to operate it," said Supervisor Deane Dana, a conservative who also is looking for money to run a new health center in his own district in Long Beach.

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