Frustrated Ventura County officials have asked for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's help in cutting through what they say is red tape preventing them from reopening Santa Paula Hospital.
Santa Paula Mayor Rick Cook said the small community hospital, closed for more than two years, has been fully refurbished and is ready to admit patients.
Community leaders had hoped to open its doors before Saturday, when a public dedication ceremony is scheduled.
But the hospital can't reopen until a team from the state Department of Health Services does a final inspection, Cook and other leaders said this week. The inspection is set for July 3.
Another snag could easily push the reopening past the Fourth of July holiday, when more people are on the roads and accidents involving fireworks are common, Cook said.
"What happens if they say we're missing a form?" he said. "My fear is that every day that goes by, we may lose a life."
Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Margita Thompson said the state followed appropriate procedures and had already expedited the permitting process at the request of local officials.
When the hospital's paperwork was finalized June 8, an inspection date was set for the end of July, Thompson said. Health services officials agreed to move the walk-through up to July 3, she said.
Moving it up even earlier would mean bumping someone else, Thompson said.
"It's the same as anything else," she said. "When you go to the DMV, you wait in line."
The hospital's closure in December 2003 eliminated the only emergency room between Ventura and Santa Clarita. It takes about 20 minutes to get from Santa Paula to trauma care in Ventura and 30 minutes to reach an ER in Santa Clarita.
Mounting debts and bankruptcy forced the rural hospital to close. But leaders in Santa Paula and county government joined forces to purchase the property and refurbish the buildings.
The county's Health Care Agency spent $4.5 million on new equipment, advanced technology, new flooring, wall coverings and landscaping.
Most of the hospital's 145 employees have been hired and are waiting to get to work, said Ventura County Supervisor Kathy Long, whose district includes the Santa Clara River Valley, where the 49-bed hospital is located.
"We feel they can get that seven-member team up from L.A. and take four hours to get the job done," Long said. "This hospital is spanking clean and ready to go."
Sabrina Lockhart, another Schwarzenegger press aide, said it's not always so cut and dried, and that inspectors will be scouring every aspect of the hospital's operations, from nursing to what the cafeteria serves.
"Sometimes these inspections can take several days," Lockhart said. "It's not like you go in, spend a few hours and you're done. Patient safety is a foremost priority."
Cook, meanwhile, said he will press his case in Sacramento today. He and Santa Paula City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz hope to speak to Tom Krause, interim director of the Department of Health Services, as well as Schwarzenegger aides.
"We didn't want this to happen. It's a political thing now," Cook said. "But how many heart attacks have left Santa Paula and not made it to an ER in time?"