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After 68 Years, Money Woes Force Closure of St. Luke Medical Center

Health: Pasadena landmark stops taking nonemergency patients and will close emergency room April 3, leaving city with one hospital.

January 05, 2002|CARA MIA DiMASSA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For 68 years, the golden cupola of St. Luke Medical Center has been a familiar landmark in northeast Pasadena, helping guide people to one of the two hospitals that bookend the city of 134,000 people.

But in April, St. Luke will close its doors, the latest in a string of Southern California hospitals that have shut down, merged or been sold in recent years because of money problems.

St. Luke stopped admitting nonemergency patients Thursday and will close its emergency room April 3. Huntington Memorial will be Pasadena's only full-service hospital.

Tenet Healthcare Corp. said St. Luke was in serious financial trouble long before the company acquired the 165-bed facility in 1997. St. Luke has 442 full- and part-time employees.

"We gave it a solid effort over the last five years," said Harry Anderson, Tenet vice president. "We spent money on it, we improved equipment, but it tended to be an underused facility. We just were not able to find a way to make it competitive in a market where there are bigger, more successful hospitals nearby."

Phyllis Bushart, St. Luke's chief executive, said only 70 to 75 beds have been filled at any given time in recent years.

"It's been tough to compete with Huntington and Methodist [Hospital in nearby Arcadia], which are larger, more well-equipped and [well-]staffed hospitals," she said.

Five other hospitals, including Huntington and Methodist, are within an eight-mile radius of St. Luke, with more than 1,700 beds total, Bushart said.

"There are a significant number of facilities available," she said. "All of the physicians on staff at St. Luke are also on staff at one of the other hospitals in the area."

Jim Lott, executive vice president of the Healthcare Assn. of Southern California, a trade group that represents 190 hospitals, including St. Luke, said he believes the closure will not present a crisis in health care access.

"Emergency and all other services people need are available nearby," he said.

Huntington and Methodist issued a joint statement saying they will "assure all members of our community that their respective hospitals will continue to meet all health care needs."

Some concerns remain, however, that the closure will further burdened already crowded emergency rooms.

"It means more strain on facilities that are already taxed and overloaded," said Steve Ralph, chief operating officer of Huntington.

Bushart said St. Luke employees will receive salary and benefits for at least 60 more days, even if their services are not needed. Although the hospital will not be admitting nonemergency patients, it will honor previously scheduled outpatient appointments through April 3.

For Thomas Riley, a family practice physician who has been on staff at St. Luke since the late 1950s, the closure is a deep loss. Riley's office, across the street on Washington Boulevard, was chosen for its proximity to St. Luke.

"I take most of my patients there," he said. "I use it for X-rays and labs. Some 400 people will be out of jobs, many of them people who have been there as long as I can remember. They've taken a tremendous load of patients from this area."

On Friday, he cradled in his hands a color postcard of the hospital, taken years ago, when St. Luke was run by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange. He keeps the postcard in a frame on his office wall.

The hospital has been "an old friend that is gone now," said Riley, who also has staff privileges at Huntington.

"And I feel very bad about it. I will miss St. Luke."

The closure is part of a shakedown occurring throughout the local industry. For example, the nonprofit Daniel Freeman Hospitals Inc., with facilities in Inglewood and Marina del Rey, was sold to Tenet in December.

"We are seeing the smaller hospitals get lost in this supply-and-demand battle that is going on. We still have an oversupply of beds in Los Angeles County and an undersupply of emergency services," said Lott of the Healthcare Assn.

"For a small hospital to survive in this market is a real challenge."

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