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Panel Urges Ailing Santa Paula Hospital to Find a Partner Fast

February 28, 2003|Daryl Kelley | Times Staff Writer

Santa Paula Memorial Hospital, a tiny community-owned facility awash in red ink, should speed up efforts to affiliate or merge with a larger medical center if it hopes to survive, a committee formed to save the hospital has concluded.

The special committee, representing the farming communities of the rural Santa Clara Valley, recommended Wednesday evening that the faltering hospital forgo a proposed consultant's study and immediately begin talks with potential partners.

"The committee is concerned that the [hospital] Board of Directors is not moving quickly enough...," says a committee report. "It has been nearly four months since the hospital first issued its call for assistance and it has not been demonstrated ... that all appropriate steps have been taken to resolve this issue."

The 42-year-old hospital, one of just three in California built solely from community donations, is losing $3 million a year and has not turned a profit on operations since 1988. Officials announced in December that it needed to raise $600,000 in 90 days or it might be forced to close or downsize.

Conditions improved in January and February, but the situation is still so critical that hospital directors should contact larger health facilities within days to see if they are interested in affiliating, the committee recommended.

"It appears that the options are now limited to some sort of cooperative arrangement with another medical facility," said committee Chairwoman Mary Ann Krause, a Santa Paula councilwoman. "Whether it's as simple as an affiliation or as complex as a merger depends on what partners are out there and what they offer."

The committee, which has met three times this month, backed quick action in a five-page series of recommendations. It urged the hospital to set up a precise timeline for action, reach out to community physicians for greater support and ask residents to question their doctors if they suggest using another hospital.

The committee brushed aside a suggestion by member Scott Rushing, a Santa Paula real estate broker, to ask the hospital board to fire Quorum Health Group Inc., a Tennessee-based firm that has run the medical center since 1994.

"I'm wondering why Quorum doesn't step down," Rushing said in an interview. "Losing $12 million in four years is just not a good job. They should take the high road and help in this transition."

Under a partnership, the hospital might scale back operations but remain a basic safety net for the farm valley, parts of which are at least half an hour by ambulance from Ventura. The reorganized center would need an emergency room and provide overnight treatment as a general hospital, but also provide outpatient treatment of less serious injuries and illnesses, the committee said.

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