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Hospitals' Dispute Over Improvements Settled

Accord: In exchange for Community Memorial not opposing kitchen and lab upgrades, county won't offer health-care plan to private sector.


Signaling a possible truce in a long hospital war, Community Memorial Hospital will no longer oppose modernization of a kitchen and laboratory at rival Ventura County Medical Center, officials announced Wednesday.

The agreement is a sign of progress in a behind-the-scenes effort to resolve a decade-long fight over which hospital will capture a prized patient market in the western county. Community Memorial and the Medical Center are two blocks apart in Ventura.

Supervisors Steve Bennett and Frank Schillo, county Chief Administrative Officer Harry Hufford and county Health Care Agency Director Pierre Durand began meeting with several Community Memorial Hospital trustees in January to work out the deal.

"This agreement is pretty historic," said Bennett, noting that the hostilities had put the hospitals on opposite sides of two expensive ballot measures. "To have us reach the point where the county and CMH can lay our swords down is a tremendous gain for the city."

In exchange for Community Memorial supporting upgrades at the public hospital, the county has promised not to extend the county's low-cost health care plan to private-sector patients. Schillo had proposed expanding the county's program to the uninsured working poor late last year.

The county also agreed not to expand a network of specialty clinics and to send some cardiac patients to Community Memorial for specialized services.

Aggressive marketing of the county's health care plan was a particularly sore area for Community Memorial, which saw it as a grab at business, making the private and public hospitals competitors for the same health care market.

Community Memorial also saw plans to update the county's kitchen and lab facilities, both constructed in 1921, as a precursor to expanding the hospital so it could handle more patients.

County officials, however, said they are simply trying to update facilities that are so old they no longer meet the hospital's needs. The dilapidated kitchen was shut down three years ago and all of the hospital's 900 daily meals are prepared in truck trailers. State inspectors are so appalled by lab conditions that they have threatened to stop renewing the hospital's certification, Bennett said.

"We can't run a hospital without a lab," said Bennett, adding that about 200,000 patients are tested a year. Parties on both sides of the negotiating table, including Community Memorial Executive Director Michael Bakst, were reluctant to comment on whether the latest move signals that feuding has ended for good.

"We are really happy with the current state of affairs," Bakst said. "Let's just leave it at that."

Nor would they comment on an earlier round of talks that included a proposal for the hospitals to merge operations to increase efficiency and cut down on expenses.

The hospitals have made headlines in recent years for their disagreements, most notably over two controversial ballot measures. In 1996 the county proposed a $51-million upgrade to the hospital, but Community Memorial challenged the plan, calling it a taxpayer bid for private patients. Community Memorial spent $1.5 million on an initiative, Measure X, to oppose the plan and won by almost a 2-to-1 margin.

Tensions ran high again late last year when the two sides battled over who should control $260 million in tobacco settlement funds. Private hospitals, led by Community Memorial, put Measure O on the ballot and spent more than $2 million promoting the initiative, which sought to transfer control of the money from county supervisors to private hospitals.

The measure was rejected by 67% of voters.

Bennett made ending tensions between the two facilities a top priority in his election campaign last year. He said the county could have gone forward with the upgrades without the private hospital's blessing, but feared it would have been a much tougher job.

"I'm not certain what Community Memorial would have done about that," Bennett said. "But it's possible Community could have delayed the project and increased the cost."

The upgrade project, which will be presented to board members on Tuesday, is expected to run about $20 million. Bennett said the county has applied for a $13-million grant and has already put in about $6 million worth of work.

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