LONG BEACH — The long halls of Dominguez Medical Center are almost deserted now.
The footsteps of the hospital's few remaining patients echo through the corridors. The voices of idle clerks and technicians waft along the walls. On a recent afternoon, maintenance workers stacked folding chairs in the main lobby following a job fair to help the facility's 550 non-physician employees find new jobs.
"We're all very sad," said an emergency room clerk who would not give her name. "We don't know what's going on. People are very upset."
Last month, National Medical Enterprises Inc., the Santa Monica-based firm that has owned the 250-bed acute-care hospital since 1969, announced that financial losses would force it to close the facility--located near Artesia Boulevard on the border of Compton and North Long Beach--on May 31.
The hospital stopped accepting non-emergency patients two weeks ago. And at the end of the month, administrators say, the facility's emergency room also will shut its doors while the hospital maintains services only for outpatients and a handful of others who remain.
Compton officials said the closure of Dominguez, the closest medical facility to Compton, will be devastating to the community. Many indigent and fixed-income residents probably will have to travel several miles to the nearest county facility--Martin Luther King Jr.-Drew Medical Center in Watts--to receive medical care, officials said.
For emergencies, even the closest private hospitals will be at least five minutes farther by ambulance from most Compton locations, officials said.
"It's going to impact us terribly," Compton Councilwoman Patricia A. Moore said. "Our people will have to go to other hospitals where they will be at the low end of the totem pole. It will be a terribly long wait."
Besides endangering lives, she said, the longer distances will drive up the budget for the city's ambulance service, which is supported by taxpayers.
David Langness, vice president of communications for the Hospital Council of Southern California, said that the loss of Dominguez--which averages 1,300 emergency visits a month--will place an added burden on an already overtaxed health-care system, especially for patients who are indigent or on fixed incomes and receiving government aid.
"They will have a more difficult time finding care," Langness said, referring to patients on MediCare and MediCal, the federal and state health programs. "You will find more patients winding up in the county system and those who go to private hospitals will face longer waits and more difficulty in getting treatment."
But officials at National Medical Enterprises and other area hospitals disagreed.
"It's regrettable that any hospital has to close," said Neil Sorrentino, an executive vice president for National Medical, which owns 37 other hospitals worldwide. "But we don't honestly believe that it will create a major void because there are other hospitals in the area that can pick up the slack."
Spokesmen for several nearby hospitals--including St. Francis in Lynwood, Charter Suburban in Paramount and Memorial in Long Beach--also said their hospitals should be able to handle increased demands.
Ironically, it was the large number of fixed-income patients treated at Dominguez that led to the center's financial losses, which totaled about $16 million over the last three years, Sorrentino said.
In recent years, Sorrentino said, about 85% of the hospital's average 30,000 patients a year were either indigent or received government health-care subsidies. But the state and federal governments, pinched by budget restraints, have not reimbursed the hospital adequately for treating those patients. "The reimbursement has not kept up with hospital costs," Sorrentino said.
Officials at National Medical Enterprises said they plan to have the building demolished if they can't find a buyer.
Compton officials say they are talking to medical firms around the country to try to find a buyer for the failing hospital, but so far have been unsuccessful.
Officials in Long Beach, while decrying the loss of the hospital, say that residents of their city will be less affected by the closure because of the proximity of other hospitals.
But that is little consolation for Esther Washington, 66, a Compton resident who has been coming to the hospital for years for various medical treatments.
Washington, who lives on a fixed income, said she probably will have to go to the county medical center in Watts after Dominguez closes.
"It's disturbing," she said. "This is a terrific blow."