Efforts to reopen shuttered Santa Paula Hospital regained momentum Tuesday with a new proposal brought before the Ventura County Board of Supervisors.
Supervisors meeting in closed session agreed to review the latest plan for converting the bankrupt private hospital into a county-run facility. Supervisors sounded hopeful the health center might soon reopen after shutting down nine months ago.
But they also cautioned that many legal and financial details remain before they sign off on the plan, brought by a hospital creditors committee with the backing of Santa Paula city officials.
"There are still some numbers to work on," said Supervisor Kathy Long, the board's chief proponent for adding the small hospital to the county's healthcare system. "But if it all pencils out, by the end of the this month we hope to have a deal."
Negotiations between the county and the hospital's board of trustees appeared to sputter early this year after an initial flurry of activity. But proponents of an alternative rescue plan have been working hard in recent months to remove stumbling blocks, Santa Paula Mayor Gabino Aguirre said.
Chief among those concerns is $14 million in hospital debt that would be partly paid off by selling 16 acres of the hilltop property to a developer, Aguirre said.
After rezoning the land to residential use, it is expected to generate up to $12 million, the mayor said. Ventura County would absorb the remaining $2.7-million debt under the tentative deal in return for gaining title to the hospital and the last 13 acres, Aguirre said.
Santa Paula Hospital's board of trustees has indicated it is working on a rival business proposal with Kare Healthcare Inc., a Pasadena company.
The board's spokesman was unavailable for comment.
But Santa Paula Councilwoman Mary Ann Krause predicted that the U.S. bankruptcy judge overseeing the Chapter 11 case will certify the creditor committee's proposal because it is further along. The City Council has already formally backed the creditors' proposal, she said.
"The hospital trustees don't have a plan yet and it's hard to imagine how they could put together one that pays off the debt and reopens the hospital," Krause said. "The creditor committee's plan could go to the bankruptcy judge by early October."
Dozens of hospital supporters filled the supervisors' hearing room to urge board members to support the creditors' proposal.
A spokeswoman for the creditors committee, which represents hundreds of vendors who are owed money, told supervisors the committee would ensure a "reasonable settlement" of vendors' claims.
"Not as much as we would like -- but a reasonable amount," Agi Kessler said.
Santa Paula residents told the board they are eager for the hospital to reopen so they would no longer have to drive to Ventura for hospital care.
Santa Paula Hospital provided the only emergency care in the Santa Paula-Fillmore area before it shut down, said Robert Borrego, a longtime resident.
"I know negotiations have been very difficult at times and very frustrating," Borrego said. "But you have persevered ... Ventura County is the logical entity to run our hospital. You have the resources, you have the experience, you have an excellent, excellent record."
The county's Health Care Agency operates Ventura County Medical Center in Ventura, as well as a network of healthcare clinics across the county.
Its clinics had 325,000 patient visits last year.
Although the county's budget is going through lean times, officials have said state and federal funding is available to care for poor and uninsured patients who make up a significant portion of Santa Paula Hospital's service area.