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Picketers Call on Hospital to Fight Tobacco Initiative

Protest: Coalition opposed to the measure on control of settlement funds rallies at Los Robles and plans to demonstrate at six other private health centers.


THOUSAND OAKS — A coalition of community organizations picketed Los Robles Regional Medical Center on Wednesday, firing its opening shot in a campaign to defeat a November ballot measure that would give seven private hospitals control of $260 million in tobacco settlement money from the county.

Waving placards and shouting slogans outside the emergency room, about 50 protesters called on hospital administrators to repudiate the initiative sponsored by Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura.

"Los Robles stands in line to win a lot of money if it passes, and we intend to tell the public that," said David Maron, chairman of the Coalition Against the Hospital Initiative and the former director of the Camarillo Health Care District.

Maron said the coalition, whose member organizations include the local chapters of the American Lung Assn., League of Women Voters, League of United Latin American Citizens and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, plans to demonstrate at the six other private hospitals in the county.

"We're calling on all the private hospitals to withdraw from the initiative," he said.

The coalition chose to begin its demonstrations at Los Robles because the hospital is owned by HCA, the health care chain once called Columbia/HCA and a chain responsible for racking up millions of dollars in Medicare fines from the federal government.

"They want to use public money to help pay their fines," said Rachel Ulrich, whose husband is a physician at Ventura County Medical Center, a public hospital and the only medical facility in the county that would not receive tobacco money if the measure passes.

With her 1-year-old son, Davis, riding piggyback, Ulrich said she joined the demonstration out of concern the public's health might be hurt if Ventura County Medical Center lost money from the tobacco settlement to care for the indigent patients it serves.

"My kids could be going to school with kids and playing with kids who may not be vaccinated," the 31-year-old mother of two said.

With one demonstrator decked out in a Joe Camel mask, and another in the killer's costume from the "Scream" movie trilogy, patients and other visitors at Los Robles seemed confused about the purpose of the rally.

Tommy Hoang, whose wife, Diane, was just about to be induced into labor, said he momentarily panicked when he saw the demonstration.

"I thought they were saying there was something wrong with the hospital," said Hoang, 33.

A few Los Robles employees asked for copies of a pink flier that picketers were distributing, but the employees declined to comment about the initiative that a judge last week approved for placement on the ballot.

A spokesman for the Health Care Assn. of Southern California, a trade group that represents the private hospitals, accused the county Board of Supervisors of masterminding the demonstration.

"I believe the supervisors are behind it," Jim Lott said. "Their fingerprints are all over the place."

County officials are prohibited by law from using public resources to lobby against the initiative.

Maron denied supervisors had orchestrated the picketing behind the scenes.

"We are not apologists for them," he said. "They had nothing to do with this. They don't attend our meetings."

Maron, who develops software for insurance companies and serves as a consultant for health care companies, said he launched his campaign out of outrage at Community Memorial's attempt to seize public funds.

"I grew up here," he said. "The people of this community have a right to defend our money."

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