Downey Regional Medical Center has told Los Angeles County officials it might close its emergency room, threatening to become the 10th hospital to cut those services since 2003 as they struggle with the cost of treating the uninsured.
If the medical center follows through, it would be the largest emergency room to close in recent years, further straining the county's already overstretched emergency medical system.
The county has lost emergency rooms that treated nearly 136,000 patients a year, but state figures show that the Downey facility alone saw 46,307 emergency patients last year.
If the hospital closes, already crowded hospitals in Whittier and Bellflower would have to absorb those patients, county officials said.
"It's going to be horrible," said Carol Meyer, the county's head of emergency services. "Our emergency system is falling apart."
On Tuesday, the private nonprofit hospital appealed to the county Board of Supervisors for financial aid to help cover the cost of treating poor patients. But supervisors rejected the idea and expressed concern that paying Downey could lead to a run of other hospitals looking for help. The county is facing its own financial crisis in healthcare, stemming from the cost of treating the uninsured. The Department of Health Services is expected to plunge into the red by nearly $1 billion in three years.
"I don't know how you could ask us to subsidize a private nonprofit," Supervisor Gloria Molina said. "Every single hospital would line up, because they have the same situation as you do."
A closure or significant reduction in emergency services at the 199-bed center could be catastrophic for some patients, said Dr. Jack Kennis, associate director of the hospital's emergency care center.
Two weeks ago, he said, an ambulance brought in a 6-year-old boy who had choked on a hot dog. His heart and breathing had stopped, but doctors and nurses were able to resuscitate him because he had arrived quickly, Kennis said.
"If this facility were not here, the patient might have died," he said.
The issue facing the hospital is one that has hit private medical centers throughout the region as jammed public hospitals turn patients away. A recent study commissioned by the Hospital Assn. of Southern California found that the number of uninsured patients visiting the county's private emergency rooms has risen by a third in the last five years. About 2.25 million residents lack health insurance in the county, which has one of the highest percentages of uninsured of any major U.S. metropolitan region. Most are employed but work at jobs that do not provide health insurance. Illegal immigrants account for about 20%.
Emergency rooms are often hit hardest because more of those patients don't have insurance and because they are generally sicker and need longer treatment, often being moved to other areas of the hospital for follow-up care.
Downey Regional lost between $7 million and $11 million last year because of its emergency room services, said Robert Fuller, the hospital's chief operating officer. In the last five years, the independent nonprofit hospital has eaten up a surplus of $60 million, with half going to treat the uninsured, he said.
Fuller blamed the county's 2002 decision to cut costs by shutting several nearby clinics, leading many uninsured patients to turn to Downey for emergency care.
In addition, the hospital has had to treat emergency patients diverted from the county's troubled Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center in Willowbrook, he said. Downey is just minutes away via the Century Freeway.
"The county has solved its problems on our backs," Fuller said.
The hospital, which has been looking at closing or downgrading its emergency room for a year, is also reviewing other options, such as stop taking patients brought by ambulance from outside Downey's city limits.
The hospital has also appealed to the state to raise its reimbursement payments for treating the indigent. State officials are expected to announce a decision within the next few weeks. Without the increased funding, a closure or downsizing of the emergency room looks likely, said hospital President Allen Korneff. "It's a very serious, real threat," he said.
Korneff begged the supervisors Tuesday to approve a financial aid package that would have provided up to $900,000 to the Downey hospital for treatment of indigent patients who live near King/Drew.
That proposal was part of a $14.7-million spending plan for county trauma and emergency services that would also have bought new equipment for paramedics to detect heart attacks sooner and provide incentives for hospitals to open new trauma centers.