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Tax failure bodes ill for San Pablo’s Doctors Medical Center

SF Gate/SF Chronicle, 5/8/14

A nurse at Doctors Medical Center wore this shirt as she talked about her plight Wednesday May 7, 2014 in San Pablo. Photo: Brant Ward, The Chronicle

Fear, sadness and anxiety were among the emotions experienced by West Contra Costa residents Wednesday as they faced the imminent closure of the only public hospital between Berkeley and Vallejo.

"We have kids. We need a hospital here," saidTimothy Taylor, 47, a maintenance worker who lives in Richmond. "In all honesty, I don't know how this is going to work. Yeah, it's worrying."

Doctors Medical Center, a 189-bed facility that's served West Contra Costa families since the 1950s, is almost certain to close in July after a $20 million, last-ditch parcel tax failed Tuesday night. The tax would have helped the hospital pay off its $18 million deficit and achieve some financial stability, as it continues to serve about 80,000 uninsured and underinsured patients annually.

The only other hospital in the region is Kaiser Permanente in Richmond, which has a 15-bed emergency room - far too small to accommodate the 250,000 residents of El Cerrito, Richmond, San Pablo, El Sobrante, Pinole, Hercules, Rodeo and Crockett.

Victims of car crashes, broken bones, gunshots, heart attacks, strokes and other emergencies - including illnesses related to the several oil refineries in the area - would face long waits at Kaiser, or a 17-mile drive to the county hospital in Martinez.

The West Contra Costa Healthcare District board, which oversees the hospital, will likely vote in a week or so to close the facility, and the hospital would close for good in July, said board chair Eric Zell.

'Life and death'

"I'm really sad for this community," Zell said Wednesday. "At the end of the day, the people who will suffer the most - seniors, the disabled - are the people who need health care the most. For a lot of people, this will mean life and death."

The district, created by voters in the 1950s, would stay intact for at least 15 years to collect tax money and pay off the hospital's debts, he said.

To make payroll through July, the hospital will rely on a $4.6 million payment from the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians, who run nearby Casino San Pablo and plan to lease the hospital's back parking lot.

The hospital began running into financial trouble in the 1990s as increasing numbers of its patients relied on Medi-Cal and Medicare, or had no insurance at all. Government insurance plans typically reimburse hospitals at a significantly lower rate than the actual cost of the service, Zell said.

Slim takeover chance

Supervisor John Gioia, who represents western Contra Costa County, said he plans to ask the county for an analysis of the hospital's finances to determine whether a takeover is possible. Meanwhile, a county health clinic in San Pablo and Kaiser's Richmond facility are also planning to expand some services to make up for the loss of Doctors, he said.

"I'm sad not just for people who live in west county, but because this is such a statement about the dysfunctional state of health care in our country generally," Gioia said.

The chances of the county taking over Doctors are slim at best, he said. The county has its own financial woes, and it has already loaned Doctors several million dollars over the past few years.

The hospital's closure would mean close to 1,000 nurses, doctors, cafeteria workers, janitors and others will lose their jobs.

Seung Choo, an intensive-care nurse at Doctors, said she's not worried about finding another job, but she does worry about her patients.

"We see a lot of people who are 'train wrecks' - they have a lot of health problems, and they need the most help," she said. "It's really a disservice not to provide them with the help they need. I think it should be a moral mandate."

Sandy Alaniz, 29, of San Pablo said the drive to the county hospital in Martinez could take an hour during the afternoon rush hour.

"I don't know what we're going to do," she said. "Just hope we don't have any emergencies, I guess."

By Carolyn Jones for the San Francisco Chronicle


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