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Nursing Chief at St. John's Steps Down


In another blow to Ventura County's largest hospital, the head of nursing at St. John's Regional Medical Center has resigned, the third change in top administrators at the money-losing Oxnard hospital since July.

Hospital officials confirmed that Vicki Lemmon, 47, will leave the embattled hospital Friday after eight years, including 18 months as the executive in charge of more than 400 nurses.

Lemmon could not be reached for comment. But hospital sources said she had opposed a hospital plan to cut the nursing staff, and faced reassignment.

Hospital spokeswoman Rita O'Connor said she could not discuss Lemmon's reasons for leaving. But O'Connor acknowledged Lemmon's resignation came as the hospital planned to cut its nursing staff in some departments and as Lemmon's job responsibilities were being changed.

The hospital has hired a new executive vice president, who is set to take charge of all operations, including the nursing staff, at the end of the month, O'Connor said.

"Vicki was offered another position in the organization. It had not been fully defined," O'Connor said. "Her position would have changed, but she chose not to accept the job."

Before the shake-up, hospital administrator Charles Padilla, who in July took charge of St. John's and its sister Pleasant Valley facility in Camarillo, had talked with Lemmon about how to save money in nursing areas, where he considered the hospital overstaffed, O'Connor said.

"Charles said they had been looking at benchmarks for other hospitals the same size as ours," O'Connor said. "As far as Vicki balking, we were in the process of looking at the benchmarks and deciding what changes needed to be made. Charles was very complimentary of the work Vicki had done [previously] to bring the staffing level to more competitive levels."

Faced with a year of losses at both St. John's hospitals, executives of the giant Catholic Health Care West chain in July removed administrator Jim Hoss and accepted the resignation of medical director Ross DiBernardo, a staff doctor for 25 years.

Hospital sources said then that Hoss--respected by doctors for his handling of difficult personnel issues--had balked at cuts in the nursing staff that he believed would jeopardize care, and that DiBernardo saw the removal of Hoss as a sign of corporate medicine gone awry.

The changes followed the 256-bed hospital's closure of a 31-bed acute-care wing in March to save money.

Indeed, hospitals throughout Ventura County and the state are struggling to turn a profit in this age of tight-fisted managed-care contracts. About half of the hospitals lost money on operations in 1998, according to state reports.

The 48-hospital Catholic Health Care West will report $80 million in operating losses for the fiscal year that ended June 30, officials said.

Catholic Health Care has a 2.5% profit target for its hospitals, and St. John's had not met that goal for some time, officials said.

St. John's financial performance has improved in recent months, but the hospital still lost $494,000 on operating revenues of $36.3 million for the three months ending Sept. 30, the hospital reported last week.

Lemmon's resignation comes as members of St. John's nursing staff are gathering support to unionize. An organizing committee has been formed and dozens of nurses have signed cards pledging to vote for a union, nurses said.

"The fact that the hospital is trying to cut staff doesn't come as a surprise to these nurses," said Barbara Lewis, an organizer for the Service Employees International Union. "That's what they face every day on the job."

Emergency room nurse Stephanie Lara-Jenkins said she has known Lemmon for 20 years and said Lemmon would resign if she thought quality patient care was at stake.

"I don't think she would have done anything to jeopardize patient care," Lara-Jenkins said. "I think she put herself on the line for that. She was very much a patient and nursing advocate."

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