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Hospital to Fight County Cutback

The Antelope Valley facility will seek a court injunction to stop elimination of inpatient services at a Lancaster center used by the poor.

May 22, 2003|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

The directors of an Antelope Valley hospital will seek an injunction to preserve inpatient services at a Lancaster public hospital for the poor, creating another legal hurdle for Los Angeles County officials trying to curb a massive budget shortfall in the public health system.

In a unanimous vote Tuesday, the five-member Antelope Valley Health Care District board -- which oversees the nonprofit Antelope Valley Hospital -- agreed to pursue legal action to halt the conversion of Lancaster's High Desert Hospital into an outpatient ambulatory care clinic.

The county has begun scaling back inpatient services at the 75-bed hospital and anticipates shutting those services down completely by June 30.

"The reality is the clock is ticking. That's why we have such a strong sense of urgency and the desire to move quickly," said Ed Callahan, an Antelope Valley Hospital spokesman.

The conversion of High Desert, which would save the county $10 million per year, is one of a series of cuts that seek to avert a $1.1-billion budget shortfall in the county health-care system by the 2007-2008 fiscal year.

The board's decision was inspired by recent successful efforts to block other county cuts on grounds that they would have devastating effects on patient care.

This month, federal lawsuits by public interest law groups and patients temporarily blocked planned cutbacks at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center and the closure of Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey.

The Antelope Valley district plans to contact the law firms that represented the plaintiffs in the Rancho Los Amigos action to see if they will represent the district as well, Callahan said.

Antelope Valley Hospital is the largest hospital in an area that saw a reduction in the total number of hospital beds in the last decade while the population boomed. Abdallah Farrukh, chairman of the hospital board, said the conversion of High Desert could dump uninsured patients into the wards of the area's two remaining hospitals, forcing them to cut costs elsewhere and further limit services.

Farrukh is trying to persuade county officials to adopt a plan under which Antelope Valley Hospital would run High Desert Hospital's inpatient services in conjunction with the county. But county health officials say that would still cost about $10 million per year -- the same amount they were hoping to save with the conversion.

From the county's perspective, the decision to file an injunction "complicates a lot of things, to say the least," said Norm Hickling, a field representative for Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, who represents the Antelope Valley.

But Hickling said he would continue working on a number of plans to save inpatient care at High Desert -- including the proposed partnership with Antelope Valley Hospital.

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