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Valley's Oldest Hospital to Close

Shuttering of Van Nuys facility will add to the sharply rising toll of ER shutdowns in county.

August 20, 2004|Jason Felch | Times Staff Writer

The San Fernando Valley's oldest hospital announced Thursday that it would close its doors later this year, bringing to six the number of announced shutdowns of emergency rooms in Los Angeles County in the last 14 months.

The emergency room at Northridge Hospital Medical Center's Sherman Way Campus, in Van Nuys, will become the largest of those. It served almost 26,000 patients in the 2002 fiscal year. Northridge's other campus, on Roscoe Boulevard, will remain open.

The news comes just days after the loss of Elastar Community Hospital in East Los Angeles and in the midst of what health officials say is a crisis in the county's emergency care facilities that is likely to get worse.

Overall, about 75,000 patients were served each year by the six emergency rooms, said Carol Meyer, director of the Los Angeles County Emergency Medical Services Agency.

"Every time this happens, there is a domino effect to the hospitals in the surrounding area," Meyer said.

As in other recent closures, Northridge cited "substantial financial losses" at the Sherman Way campus. A major cause cited by healthcare administrators was the decline in reimbursement that hospitals receive for uninsured patients, many of whom use the emergency room as their primary care facility.

"I don't think there's any end to the closures as long as there's no solution to the uninsured and hospitals treating people without getting paid," said Peter Warren of the California Medical Assn. "It's another organ failure in the body of L.A. County, which is already sick."

Two other factors have pushed many hospitals over the edge this year, officials said. One is a new set of state minimum standards for the number of nurses on a shift, which has required many hospitals to increase their staffs. Another is a statewide deadline for meeting new earthquake retrofit rules that were adopted after the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Faced with the choice between retrofitting their buildings and closing, some hospitals have shut down.

Although acute here, the crisis has spread throughout California, which has lost 65 emergency rooms in the last decade even as the population has grown rapidly. A fifth of state residents lack health insurance, Warren said.

The closures have caught the attention of politicians and sparked a debate over solutions.

Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn called council members and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to discuss whether the city or the federal government could do anything to prevent the closure of the Sherman Way campus, said Deputy Mayor Renata Simril. Officials are examining whether earthquake repair funds or nurse retention programs operated by the city could be tapped to keep the hospital open, Simril said.

"The mayor is outraged by it," Simril said. "The mayor is very concerned about making sure there are adequate services."

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who represents the Northridge area, said the closure would worsen the county's existing healthcare problems.

"The sad and incontrovertible fact is that throughout our region, hospital and emergency room capacity is plummeting, and the absorption capacity of the rest of the system is being taxed beyond its limits," he said.

County Supervisor Mike Antonovich has called on the state to help by reducing the number of rules that officials impose on hospitals without providing additional money. Yaroslavsky said the loss of emergency rooms was a national problem that must be addressed by Congress.

The issue of emergency room closures will also come before voters on the November ballot. Medical groups are backing Proposition 67, which would impose a 3% surcharge on telephone bills to keep open hospital emergency rooms, trauma centers and health clinics, and provide money for physician training as well as emergency medical equipment.

The measure would raise $150 million in Los Angeles County to pay for emergency room care, paramedic training and care, and community clinics, said Warren, of the California Medical Assn.

Opponents of the ballot measure, which include major telephone companies, say the tax is not justified because it would benefit large healthcare corporations without guaranteeing better service.

"We think it is unfair for one industry to tax another industry for its benefit," said Marin County Sheriff Robert T. Doyle, president of the California State Sheriffs' Assn., which is opposing Proposition 67.

Northridge Hospital Medical Center has made plans to transfer many of its Sherman Way campus patients to a neighboring facility, which hospital officials said should lessen the effect on the community.

Valley Presbyterian Hospital, less than two miles away, expects to add 90 licensed beds in coming months, increasing its total to 380 beds, said Robert Bills, the hospital's chief executive.

"There's excess capacity here," Bills said. "We know we're going to be able to absorb the additional volume."

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