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Lawsuit Claims Service Reductions at San Pablo Hospital Violate Civil Rights Act

Alexandra Garreton, Jon Brooks, and Bay City News via KQED - The California Report, 8/14/14

Photo: Doctors Medical Center

Contra Costa County officials say they’re doing their best to keep the largest hospital in west Contra Costa County from going under. And that means cutting patient services.

This month Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo stopped accepting ambulances and reduced the number of in-patient beds to 50. County Health Services officials said last week that the 22 to 24 emergency ambulance patients normally seen at DMC each day — including three to four considered to be in critical condition — are now being diverted to other area hospitals.

Last fall, Doctor’s Medical Center announced a fiscal emergency and planned closure of the hospital. In recent months, at least 88 doctors, nurses and other hospital staffers have left, according to DMC spokesman Chuck Finney.

The hospital plans to cut more beds and close their cardiac unit in September.

Lawsuit alleges cutting services at Doctors Medical Center disproportionately affects senior and black residents.

Hospital advocates say reducing services to the medical center’s patients, many of whom are poor and uninsured, is a violation of civil rights. On Tuesday, health care providers and community members filed a federal lawsuit to stop the downsizing and potential closure. U.S. District Court Judge William Orrick denied a motion for a temporary restraining order to stop the diversion of emergency ambulances from DMC, but set a hearing for the case in San Francisco on Aug. 27.

“There is no question that there will be a medical emergency if this hospital closes down, and we must do everything in our power to keep it a full service hospital,” said Liz Jacobs, a spokeswoman for the California Nurses Association and National Nurses United.

The lawsuit alleges that cutting services at DMC, West Contra Costa County’s only public hospital, disproportionately affects the area’s seniors and black residents.

The suit also alleges that reduced services and the hospital’s possible closure violate the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Age Discrimination Act of 1975.

Many of the plaintiffs listed in the suit are black residents of West Contra Costa County over 60 years old who suffer from various chronic illnesses, according to the complaint.

Contra Costa County, members of the county Board of Supervisors, county Health Services director Dr. William Walker, the West Contra Costa County Healthcare District and district board chairman Eric Zell are all named as defendants in the suit.

The county’s Board of Supervisors in June agreed to grant the hospital a $6 million loan to prevent it from closing completely but said it has too many financial obligations to take on the hospital’s $18 million deficit.

In May, voters rejected Measure C, which would have provided about $20 million per year to the hospital. The measure needed two-thirds approval to pass, but garnered just under 52 percent.

As reported in the Contra Costa Times, parcel taxes already provide $10.9 million annually to the hospital. The rejected parcel tax would have cost taxpayers about $210 per year on a 2,000-square-foot house, the Times said.

The hospital’s financial problems stem from the low reimbursement rates offered for services provided to Medi-Cal and Medicare patients relying on those programs dominate the patient mix at DMC, the Times said.

For now, Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia says, the county is trying to keep at least some of the hospital’s services going.

“We have been able to pull a rabbit out of a hat over the last seven years when every time we thought the hospital would close we were able to find some short-term solutions to keep it open. It’s clearly much more challenging now than it was before.”

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