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Ruling Is Too Late; Emergency Room Shuts

Health: Judge's decision to keep open facility at Westlake Medical Center does not arrive in time. Hospital's fate uncertain.


THOUSAND OAKS — Despite the combined forces of a last-minute court injunction and an impassioned rally by its faithful and well-heeled clientele, the Westlake Medical Center's emergency room will remain closed, the hospital's owner said Wednesday.

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ordered Columbia/HCA to keep the hospital open for two weeks while Salick Health Care continues to negotiate with the Tennessee-based conglomerate to buy the 25-year-old facility.

But the judge's ruling, issued Wednesday morning, came too late to save the popular emergency room--located in the affluent suburbs that straddle the Ventura-Los Angeles county line--at least while Columbia owns the building.

According to Salick's chief executive officer, Dr. Bernard Salick, the injunction requires Columbia to maintain the status quo at Westlake until a hearing July 18.

But Columbia officials said their license to operate an emergency room expired at midnight Tuesday, about nine hours before the court order was delivered. Maintaining the status quo then translates to nothing more than keeping the lights on at the hospital and providing the basic services to keep open the cancer center that Salick currently operates there.

"The word I got from Columbia is that the ER is closed and we have no intention of reopening it," Columbia spokesman Bill Noland said, standing in a Westlake office full of packing boxes.

What will happen to the emergency room and to the planned sale of the hospital remains a mystery. Negotiations between Salick and Columbia/HCA broke down at the last minute, although neither party is willing to say why. Salick would say only that the amount of the sale is not in dispute.

"We are prepared to tender a check right now," Salick said at a news conference Wednesday morning.

Salick said negotiation problems between the two companies had arisen in the last few weeks, prompting him to fly to Nashville to meet with Columbia officials. But citing pending litigation, Salick said he could not elaborate on the state of negotiations.

"This is a very awkward situation to be in," he said. "I'm personally outraged as to what has taken place in the last few weeks."

So are residents of Thousand Oaks, Westlake Village and the surrounding communities that used the Westlake emergency room, including Calabasas, Oak Park, Agoura and Malibu.

They turned out in force--about 300 people--for a rally early Wednesday in front of the community hospital.

Some held signs that accused Columbia of buying Westlake two years ago for the express purpose of closing it down and eliminating competition with the other hospital it owns in the Conejo Valley, Los Robles Regional Medical Center. Several held up "Merging Is Murder" posters.

Ronald Phelps, the Columbia executive who heads Los Robles, dismissed those accusations. Columbia acquired Westlake in a hospital swap, not with the intention of closing it down, he said.

"Columbia didn't acquire Los Robles and then say, 'Geez, let's go over and buy Westlake and shut it down,' " Phelps said.

At the rally, residents said they were aware of a noncompeting clause in Salick's contract with Columbia/HCA that would likely prohibit Salick from running an emergency room. Still, from the local Chamber of Commerce director to Oak Park resident Fred Goldman, father of homicide victim Ron Goldman, they begged Salick to fight the contract, saying their lives depended on it.

"The new owners have a responsibility as a friend and as a neighbor to keep this emergency room open," Goldman told the roaring crowd. "We understand that is part of their contract. But we all also know that there is nothing in a contract that can't be broken. My message to Salick: Be a good neighbor. Be a good friend."

For a brief hour after the rally, it seemed that community members' hopes had been heard and acted on. Just as participants began to trickle away from the hospital, Patrick McDonough, executive director of Salick's Westlake Comprehensive Care Center, emerged from the building and told them about the injunction. While doctors hugged and residents jumped up and down, he said that Salick wants an emergency room to exist at Westlake, even after the sale.

"We believe this community needs a second ER and we believe it should be at Westlake," McDonough said.


But those hopes were dashed at the news conference when Salick Health Care officials said it was Columbia's responsibility to reopen the emergency room. Although the company said it wants to expand its cancer care treatment center to include other catastrophic illnesses, Bernard Salick said the company is not in the emergency room business.

"We do not operate with emergency rooms," he said. "However, let me also say that Salick is extremely responsive to the community needs."

As the news conference concluded, Westlake Village City Councilman Doug Yarrow and a contingent of other community leaders stormed into Noland's office and demanded to know whether Columbia planned to reopen the emergency room. They weren't happy with Noland's answer.

"You want to play with our lives?" Yarrow asked Noland. "I can't believe Columbia is engendering such ill will in the community."

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