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Tax Hike to Help Nurse Alameda Hospital Services Back to Health

March 05, 2004|Donna Horowitz | Special to The Times

Alameda County officials are elated that voters approved a half-cent sales tax for healthcare, but said much work still lies ahead to fix the deficit-laden public hospital system.

Measure A, which required a two-thirds vote, won with 70.9% Tuesday. It raises the sales tax in the county to 8.75% -- the highest in the state.

Ilene Weinreb, president of the Alameda County Medical Center board, said she was delighted by the vote but warned that the hospital and other services still must be made more efficient.

"At least we don't have to cut absolutely essential services and we can be thoughtful about what we need to cut," Weinreb said.

She said that if the medical center doesn't streamline its operation it will be in the same precarious financial position again in a few years. The hospital system is facing a $70-million deficit this year.

Of the $90 million the measure is expected to raise each year, 75% will go to the medical center.

The center treats 125,000 mostly uninsured and poor patients a year at Highland Hospital in Oakland; Fairmont Hospital and John George Psychiatric Pavilion, in San Leandro; and three free-standing clinics.

The remainder of Measure A funds will be divided among community clinics, mental health and public health programs and private hospitals for uncompensated emergency care.

The medical center's trustees recently hired Cambio Health Solutions of Tennessee for $3.2 million to help turn around the public hospital system after layoffs and executive turmoil last year. Weinreb said she expected an analysis in a week about how the new revenue would help. In several weeks, Cambio is also expected to come up with a long-term strategy for improving the operation.

A preliminary assessment by Cambio found that salaries and benefits make up 70% of the medical center's operating costs compared with about 50% of the costs for other public hospital systems. The group also found $28 million in unbilled charges.

Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson, who is vice chairman of the supervisors' Health Committee, said he hadn't been surprised that the measure passed, although other local and state tax measures were on the ballot.

"I think people just resonated with the message," Carson said. "I think people understand the impact on people with no insurance.... It's a healthcare safety net for all, regardless of how rich or poor you are."

Ralph Silber, executive director of the Alameda Health Consortium, said: "I think what this indicates is that even people with health insurance are very concerned about access to healthcare."

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