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Blythe Voters Are Asked to Pay for Remote Hospital's Survival

November 03, 2005|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

Blythe's lone hospital has the only emergency room for nearly 100 miles in any direction. When a desert snowbird gets chest pains, or weekend thrill seekers tumble off their dirt bikes, Palo Verde Hospital is their lifeline.

Sometimes derided as a "Band-Aid station," the aging acute-care facility is the first stop for people critically injured along that deserted ribbon of Interstate 10. Each month, scores of patients from the hospital are airlifted to Indio, Palm Springs or Phoenix after they are stabilized.

Now the 51-bed hospital is at the center of a polarizing political fracas and is in danger of disappearing unless two-thirds of city voters approve a measure on Tuesday's ballot that would levy a $32-per-parcel annual property tax to keep the ailing hospital afloat.

In Blythe, a working-class community of 22,000 on Riverside County's border with Arizona, there is little dispute that the town needs emergency medical care.

The nearly 70-year-old facility is crucial not only to Blythe residents, but also to the more than 8,000 inmates at two nearby state prisons; the hundreds of thousands of retirees who flock to Quartzsite, Ariz., just over the Colorado River in winter; and the 9 million drivers who whoosh by Blythe on Interstate 10 each year.

"We need our hospital," Samuel Tisch, 59, said from his bed in the Palo Verde intensive care unit. "Without a hospital, I'd have to drive -- how far is it from here to Indio? I'd have to drive 90 miles just to go to the doctor."

Tisch's chronic obstructive pulmonary disease makes breathing difficult, and recently he has been in and out of the hospital every few weeks.

But residents are divided over just why and how the hospital's fortunes slid south so quickly and are unsure if a public bailout proposed in Measure I is the best solution.

"We do need a hospital here," said Angela Aguilar, 40, owner of Maria's Mexican, who delivered her four children at Palo Verde. "I don't see why the homeowners have to pay for it."

But for hairstylist Gloria Leivas, the tax increase is worth it: "$32? I just bought a blouse for more than that," said Leivas, 58, as she blow-dried her newly highlighted hair.

Dr. David Brooks, a general practitioner, said he just wanted to keep Palo Verde in local hands. He's fed up with profits from the hospital being diverted to the corporate owner, rather than funneled back into the community medical center, he said.

"It seemed that the priority was to stockholders rather than to patient care," said Brooks, president of the Palo Verde Healthcare District Board.

And he and other physicians thought they should have greater say in the hospital's governance. Brooks and the rest of the five-member board parted ways with the hospital's corporate owner, LifePoint Hospitals Inc. in Tennessee, as part of a mutual decision last summer, said Chief Executive Officer Dale Mulder, who works for LifePoint.

Mulder described the turn of events as a "simple acknowledgment that that's what [board members] want," he said. LifePoint will work with the board to smooth the transition, Mulder said.

The hospital board found itself scrambling to produce the $5 million needed to pay for Palo Verde's working capital assets before LifePoint's Dec. 31 pullout. The board already owns the hospital building and property.

As the proponent of the measure, the board has been excoriated for making what some opponents consider a haphazard decision to assume ownership without an adequate financial plan.

"It's not very popular here," Blythe City Manager Les Nelson said of Measure I. Nelson calls the measure "not very well thought out, not very well put together, not very well written."

"They need to worry about being doctors and let someone else do the administrating," said resident Diane Gonzales. The secretary plans to vote against the measure. "The board and the hospital should be independent of the doctors .... Their position should be to care for the sick," she said.

LifePoint has no official position on Measure I, but Mulder said that although the hospital should be able to support itself financially, it's a "tossup" whether voters will opt for the tax.

Friends of Palo Verde Hospital, a grass-roots group leading the Yes on Measure I movement, has raised about $8,000 from doctors, hospital employees and citizens; most of that has been spent on targeted mailings and newspaper and radio ads, said Chairwoman Sandi Blessing.

Although no formal opposition movement has emerged, "there's no shortage of critics within the community," Nelson said.

Many hospital employees also are jittery over the future of their paychecks and benefits, and some have already jumped ship.

"The closer it gets to Dec. 31 without being told anything ... the more and more worried people are getting," said lab manager Peggy Abbs, 56. "And I don't blame them."

Lab assistant Debbie Wolfinbarger is worried about whether she'll still have medical insurance in six months to pay for a surgical procedure.

The board "should have a better plan," she said. If Measure I doesn't pass, "who's going to take care of us?"

If the measure fails, the board will be hard-pressed to find funds and may be forced into bankruptcy, Nelson said.

In spite of misgivings, the City Council backs Measure I. Palo Verde must be saved, said Blythe Mayor Robert Crain, who is up for reelection this year.

"We need this hospital," said hospital vocational nurse Rosie Castro, 65. "Somehow they're going to fix it. They cannot leave people out in the desert abandoned like that."

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