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Report Disputes Measure H Hospital Data

Funding problems have closed just three facilities, agency says. Figures ignore reality, backers respond.

October 31, 2000|DAVID REYES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For months, supporters of Measure H have alleged that 14 Orange County hospitals have been forced to close in more than a decade, unable to survive because of the county's spotty compensation record for serving poor and low-income residents.

But the number is much less than that, according to a county Health Care Agency report released Monday. Only three hospitals have closed, the report says. The rest actually converted to specialized facilities.

"I wanted to set the record straight because the proponents of Measure H have said that the county's level of funding has caused 14 hospitals to close," said Supervisor Cynthia P. Coad, who asked the agency to research the claim.

What was also surprising, she said, was that nearly half the facilities were psychiatric hospitals or clinics.

Measure H would steer 80% of the $30 million in tobacco settlement money the county will get annually for the next two decades into the county's health services. A competing initiative, Measure G, would direct 40% of the money to paying down the county's bankruptcy debt, 42% for health care and 18% for jails and public safety.

The report determined that of the 14 hospitals, only two acute care hospitals--Pacifica and Suncrest--had closed. A single psychiatric hospital, Capistrano by the Sea, also closed, the report said.

"All of the others converted to health or specialized residential care programs for underserved Orange County populations," according to the report, which was signed by Juliette Poulson, the agency's interim director.

What the report fails to highlight, said one Measure H spokeswoman, is why these hospitals converted their businesses and chose to eliminate acute care services.

"It's because of the economic reality," said Michele Revelle, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Medical Assn. "[The report] completely avoided the political reality of why these changes came about."

She said the county has now lost six hospitals that once offered emergency room services. The report disputes that number as well, putting it at five.

Citizens for a Healthy Orange County--Yes on H, a coalition of doctors, hospitals and clinics, have used the higher closure numbers in campaign material and in debates to argue for Measure H.

Jon Gilwee, a spokesman for Healthcare Assn. of Southern California, a hospital trade group in Orange County, took exception to the report, saying it failed to include such things as the withering of the county's regional trauma center network.

In 1981, the county had five trauma centers but that figure now stands at three: Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center in Mission Viejo, UCI Medical Center in Orange and Western Medical Center-Santa Ana.

Gilwee said the most significant closures to recognize are acute hospitals--those that had emergency rooms and additional community services.

The county's report listed Tustin Hospital as closing and then reopening in 1998, but contained no additional information.

But Gilwee said the hospital went bankrupt and the property sat vacant until it was sold and bought by an "entirely different organization."

"So it wasn't like it just closed and then reopened," he said. "In Westminster the community hospital closed and another hospital company bought it and now does not offer emergency services."

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