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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Plan Would Steer Money to Private Hospitals

Health: Community Memorial backs measure for Nov. 7 ballot that would keep all tobacco settlement funds away from county medical center projects.

March 24, 2000|MARGARET TALEV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VENTURA — In another round in a bitter hospital war, Community Memorial Hospital is pushing a measure for the November ballot that would prevent Ventura County Medical Center from getting a penny of more than $225 million in tobacco settlement money the county is slated to receive during the next 25 years.

The measure instead seeks to shift the tobacco money to the county's seven private acute care hospitals, including Community Memorial, and home care professionals for services provided to indigents, children, the elderly and the working poor.

It points out that the county hospital already receives "substantial funds from the state" to care for this population.

Michael D. Bakst, Community Memorial's executive director, said the initiative would ensure the settlement money is used for health care programs as the public intended. He said there is concern that Ventura County supervisors, who will decide how the tobacco money is spent, are grappling with a projected $5-million budget shortfall and may try to use the funds for other purposes.

"Because Ventura County is facing severe financial problems, there will be temptation to spend funds from the tobacco settlement for general government purposes, instead of for health purposes that are necessary," Bakst wrote in paperwork filed with the county. "These funds should be safeguarded."

Specifically, the measure would prohibit using tobacco money to supplement county hospital construction projects or any county health care program.

Two county supervisors on Thursday responded angrily to Bakst's assertions. They said this is simply another attempt by Community Memorial to stop the neighboring county hospital, considered a competitor, from moving forward with any building improvements, including plans for a new cafeteria and laboratory.

"Mr. Bakst is an evil person, no question in my mind, Mr. Black Heart," said Supervisor Frank Schillo. "He's aiming at the lab at VCMC, and the cafeteria. We've been able to put up temporary buildings and survive . . . But this is one that would put the nails in the coffin."

"If he lived in the last century, he would have been a train robber," added Supervisor John K. Flynn. "What he wants to do is destroy the public health delivery system. He's barking up the wrong tree. The Board of Supervisors has the authority over this money."

The county counsel's office has 15 days to review Community Memorial's proposed initiative. More than 20,000 voter signatures are needed for the measure to qualify for the Nov. 7 ballot.

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Community Memorial's new campaign is only the latest skirmish in an ongoing battle with the county hospital. In 1996, Community Memorial spent $1.6 million to successfully block the medical center from building a new outpatient facility, making it the most expensive local campaign in county history.

But Bakst denied Thursday that his hospital's new effort has any connection with Community Memorial's 1996 referendum, known as Measure X.

"This is totally different," he said. "It has nothing to do with one hospital over another or bricks and mortar."

Bakst said a "majority" of the seven private acute care hospitals countywide supported his initiative and would be attending a strategy session today on how to proceed with the initiative. He would not name individual hospitals.

Meanwhile, Mark Barnhill, a spokesman for a public relations firm retained by Bakst, said polling of 400 county residents conducted between late February and early March suggested strong support for the initiative.

Bakst said Community Memorial's interest is ensuring that the tobacco money is used for health care. He pointed out how the city of Los Angeles is planning to use its tobacco money to settle with victims of the Rampart police corruption scandal, and how Orange County may use its share to pay off bankruptcy debt and to finance new jail construction.

Meanwhile, Ventura County supervisors already have voted to use $3.1 million of this year's settlement fund--$10.6 million--to pay the first installment of a $15.3-million federal lawsuit settlement involving improper health care billing practices.

To safeguard the county's tobacco money, Community Memorial's measure proposes establishing a committee of officials from hospitals throughout the area to oversee the more than $9 million a year the county is expected to receive from the settlement.

That committee would use the money to reimburse any hospital or clinic--except Ventura County Medical Center and its affiliates--for hospitalization of the designated patient population. Settlement funds also could be used to pay for immunizations, nursing and other at-home care for the elderly, nursing scholarships and teen smoking-prevention programs.

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State Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana), who has taken a leading role in overseeing the disbursement of tobacco settlement funds to California's counties, said Thursday he favored the overall effect of Bakst's plan: requiring that tobacco funds be spent on health care.

Dunn is now backing an Orange County initiative, which has yet to qualify for the ballot, that would override supervisors' plans to spend the settlement on bankruptcy debt and jails. That initiative would dedicate 80% of the settlement funds to health care, but would not preclude county health care programs.

Coalitions from Los Angeles and San Bernardino County also are considering similar initiatives, he said.

Dunn declined to comment on the specifics of Bakst's initiative or on any hospital politics that might be in play.

"I've tried to defer to the local health communities on this," he said. "I reserve judgment."

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