EL CENTRO — In a case that highlights the crisis in medical care for the indigent, a 4-year-old boy sued nine hospitals--including four in Orange County--Thursday, contending that his father was illegally denied medical treatment when he was dying because he lacked private health insurance.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Patrick Jimenez in Imperial County Superior Court, alleges that the nine hospitals violated Juan Jimenez's civil rights when they refused to permit his transfer from Pioneers Memorial Hospital in Brawley several days after he was critically injured by a hit-and-run driver on May 30, 1989.
Jimenez, 43, a former boxer from Westminster, died of gangrene and widespread infection at Pioneers on June 18. Believing Jimenez needed more specialized care, administrators at Pioneers contacted nine better-equipped hospitals in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties, but none reportedly would take him, even after his admission had been authorized by Medi-Cal.
Some hospitals said they could not accept him because they were full or lacked an attending physician to accept the transfer. Others said they were not in the Medi-Cal program or that they could not take patients from other counties.
Investigators from the University of California and the state Department of Health Services determined that the nine hospitals did nothing wrong. The state health officials' report said that Jimenez was too ill to be moved. But Daniel H. Amos, the attorney who filed the suit, criticized those findings.
"The results of those investigations were wrong," he said. "This civil suit will prove that what they (the hospitals) did was not only reprehensible but against the law."
Amos said the medical facilities violated a section of the state Health and Safety Code that requires hospitals to provide life-saving services to patients regardless of their insurance status or ability to pay.
Justin Clouser, general counsel for Santa Ana's Poverty Law Center, said the case exemplifies the growing problem of hospitals "dumping" indigent patients onto other facilities or refusing to accept them. Hospitals say they are being pinched by rising medical costs and Medi-Cal, which reimburses them for only a small percentage of indigent patients' care.
Patrick's mother, Maria Chinkin, lived with Jimenez for about two years but continued to help support their son until the father died, Amos said.
Jimenez's widow, Leticia Jimenez, is also planning to sue the hospitals over her husband's death. Her lawyer, Leo J. Moriarty Jr., said he intends to file a similar suit in Orange County Superior Court next week, and another in U.S. District Court within a month.
Hospitals usually agree that they are obliged to accept emergency patients off the street, but say that they are under no such duty to accept transfer of patients from other facilities, Moriarty said. In his federal lawsuit, Moriarty hopes to establish that hospitals must treat any patient in a life-threatening condition.
The nine hospitals named in the lawsuit are the medical centers at UC Irvine, UC San Diego and UCLA; Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center, Western Medical Center-Santa Ana, St. Joseph Hospital in Orange and three facilities in San Diego County: Mercy Hospital and Medical Center, Grossmont District Hospital and Donald N. Sharp Memorial Hospital.
Pioneers is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, but Amos said he will not take action against the facility unless he discovers that it did not do enough to facilitate Jimenez's transfer.
Most of the hospitals or their lawyers refused to comment on the lawsuit. Officials at UCLA Medical Center and UC San Diego Medical Center said those facilities acted properly in refusing the transfer.
Laura Avallone, a spokeswoman for Mercy Hospital, said that Mercy did not refuse to accept Jimenez. Mercy's trauma surgeon simply failed to finalize the plans for the transfer, she said.
"This was a very unfortunate situation," Avallone said. "It was a systems failure in which the ball was dropped."