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Suit Threatened to Stop Hospital Cuts

The loss of inpatient services at county facility in Lancaster would place a burden on the Antelope Valley's largest medical center.

May 16, 2003|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

Borrowing a tactic from patients and public interest law groups that has stalled cutbacks at other county health facilities, the directors of the Antelope Valley's largest hospital are threatening to seek an injunction to stop the closure of inpatient services at High Desert Hospital in Lancaster.

Abdallah Farrukh, chairman of the five-member board that oversees the nonprofit Antelope Valley Hospital, said Thursday that the board is considering legal action to prevent county officials from converting High Desert Hospital into an ambulatory clinic that treats only minor medical problems.

Critics contend that the move would reduce the health-care options for the area's poor and uninsured patients.

The board will not take a formal vote on the matter until next week, but Farrukh said members have agreed that some action is needed to stop the county's plan to end inpatient services at High Desert by June 30.

County officials say the conversion of High Desert Hospital is part of a series of cutbacks that must be made to avoid a projected budget shortfall of $1.1 billion by the 2007-2008 fiscal year -- a scenario that could plunge one of the nation's largest public health systems into even greater turmoil.

Earlier this month, federal lawsuits by public interest law groups and patients helped temporarily block cutbacks at County-USC Medical Center and the closure of the county's Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey.

Local officials consider High Desert Hospital crucial to the Antelope Valley's health-care system. Although it has only 75 beds, the hospital serves the poor and uninsured in an area where an estimated 25% of residents lack health insurance. In the last decade, the Antelope Valley's population has grown by about 27%, to 318,000, while two of its five hospitals have closed down.

"All of a sudden we have demographics we're unable to handle, and we're going be even more stressed in the future," Farrukh said. "We need these beds."

If no county hospital exists to treat indigent patients, Farrukh said, those patients will increasingly end up at the two remaining medical facilities: Antelope Valley Hospital and Lancaster Community Hospital.

"If the county walks away, we get stuck with these patients, and we have to pay for them," Farrukh said. "And then we'd have to cut staff and services to stay afloat."

The conversion of High Desert Hospital would save about $10 million per year, county health spokesman John Wallace said. But officials concerned about the effects of the change have been looking at a number of ways to allow High Desert to continue inpatient services.

In August, county supervisors asked health officials to pursue a plan to rent High Desert's beds to local hospitals, the private sector and the state Department of Corrections. That plan faltered, in part because state budget problems made it difficult for prison officials to commit to a long-term contract, Wallace said.

More recently, a private health-care group has been negotiating a possible takeover of the hospital's inpatient services, said Norm Hickling, a field deputy for County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who represents the area.

Another plan, favored by Farrukh, would allow the Antelope Valley Health Care District, which manages Antelope Valley Hospital, to split the cost of maintaining inpatient services at High Desert with the county.

So far, however, neither of the new bailout schemes has worked out. Though Hickling said both hold some promise, Wallace said the plan to share High Desert's burdens with the health-care district would still cost the county about $10 million -- the same amount officials were hoping to save.

Antelope Valley Hospital officials said an injunction may at least buy more time.

Farrukh said he expected the health-care district board to vote on whether to file the lawsuit at a public meeting next week. A date for the meeting has not been set.

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