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Santa Paula Hospital Votes for a Partnership With County

The affiliation would allow the Santa Clara Valley's only medical center to stay open. Numerous details have yet to be negotiated.

May 15, 2003|Daryl Kelley | Times Staff Writer

Trustees at struggling Santa Paula Memorial Hospital have voted to affiliate with Ventura County's public hospital system, a move intended to keep the Santa Clara Valley's only medical center open.

"While we have improved our financial performance in recent months, an affiliation with the County of Ventura will strengthen our ability to provide important current and future services to the Santa Clara Valley," said board Chairman Phil Romney in a news release announcing Tuesday's decision.

Romney stressed that no agreement has been reached with the county, but said hospital representatives will try to seal the deal quickly.

It was not immediately clear what form the partnership would take -- whether Santa Paula hospital would continue to have its own board of directors, its own administration and all of its current services.

"All of that is unknown so far," said Mark Gregson, the Santa Paula hospital's top administrator. "There's no detail on any of this yet."

County Supervisor Kathy Long, in whose district the hospital is located, said she was pleased to be notified Wednesday that the county had prevailed among five medical organizations originally interested in partnering with Santa Paula.

While the Santa Paula facility would gain financial stability through a partnership, Long said Ventura County would gain its core objective of keeping open the emergency room at the Santa Paula hospital, the only trauma center between Ventura and Santa Clarita.

"Keeping Santa Paula's doors open is certainly critical," she said. "And the county would get a better clinic system, too. We've always wanted to have a stronger clinic presence there."

Santa Paula Memorial Hospital has out-patient clinics in Fillmore and Santa Paula, while the county has a small clinic in Piru and one in Santa Paula. Ventura's Community Memorial Hospital and nonprofit Clinicas del Camino Real also have clinics in the competitive Santa Clara Valley.

Long said that a pivotal issue is whether the Santa Paula hospital can operate under its own operating license or has to be legally merged with the county system under the county's license.

"We need to determine if we can have some hybrid licensing," she said. Santa Paula's consultant said such an arrangement has worked elsewhere.

Other questions that need answers are whether Santa Paula hospital employees would become county employees and what the management chain of command would be, Long said. She said she expected negotiations to last four to six months.

The 42-year-old Santa Paula hospital, one of just three in California built solely from community donations, has been losing $3 million a year and has not turned a profit on operations since 1988.

Officials announced in December that the hospital needed to raise $600,000 in 90 days to avoid possible closure or downsizing. Conditions have improved since then, but administrators still say the center must affiliate with another medical organization to stay afloat.

"We've been pretty much breaking even for the last three months," Gregson said. "We averaged 20 patients [a day] in April and we've had more than 19 on average this year."

That compares with fewer than 16 a day last year. About 21 patients a day gets the hospital to a break-even point, Gregson said. "We had 40 births in April, which is the highest for us in many, many years. And surgeries were strong too," he said. "We've showed it's doable, but the cash situation remains extremely tight."

Gregson, who works for Quorum Health Group, a Tennessee hospital-management firm, said his company is prepared to step aside and let the county take over the Santa Paula facility. Quorum, which is paid nearly $500,000 a year out of a budget of about $15 million, has run the 39-bed hospital since 1994.

If Santa Paula joins the county system, it would become part of a hospital and clinic safety net that serves Ventura County's poor and uninsured residents.

Residents of the agricultural Santa Clara Valley, with the county's lowest incomes, already use the county system frequently, driving 15 miles past the Santa Paula medical center to Ventura for treatment. So a partnership would bring hospital care closer to many patients' homes.

As part of the county system, Santa Paula Memorial Hospital would receive more money per patient from state and federal insurance plans. The hospital could also profit from treating about 450 Santa Clara Valley residents who are enrolled in a county-run insurance plan, Long said.

At the same time, the county would keep open the only emergency room within easy reach of 50,000 residents in the Piru, Fillmore and Santa Paula areas.

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