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Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Growth Taxes North County Hospitals

To understand the looming demand on hospitals in northern Los Angeles County in coming years, consider these numbers: In 2000, the combined population of the Antelope and Santa Clarita valleys was around 500,000 residents. In just six short years, however, dozens of new residential developments in the region have driven that number exponentially higher. By 2025, the amount is expected to grow to 1.2 million, an addition of 700,000 residents about the population of North Dakota according to the Southern California Association of Governments. For hospitals and medical providers, that type of unfettered growth translates into an astounding demand for health care only worsened by the fact north L.A. County is already home to relatively few full-service, acute-care medical centers. All told, the areas are vastly underserved especially Palmdale, which has the unusual distinction of being the largest city in California without a hospital, after Lost Desert Palms Hospital closed in 1996. It’s a situation that is all but certain to get worse in coming years. “This is a continuing issue,” said Sue Albert, a registered nurse and dean of Allied Health at College of the Canyons in Valencia. “We have a huge population growth here.” The expansion is especially pronounced in the Santa Clarita Valley, which has just one acute care and trauma center Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital. When the 217-bed facility opened in 1975, it was designed to care for about 18,000 patients a year. That number has been steadily rising as the population grows, registering a 4 percent jump last year in the number of occupied beds. It is expected to keep rising. “We are really looking at a shortage within 18 months,” said Andie Bogdan, a spokeswoman for the hospital. But Mayo is also in a unique situation. Bogdan explained that in most cases the demand for additional medical space is driven by the age of those in the hospital’s coverage area. That usually means areas with a large elderly population, for example, will require a hospital with acute care services. Younger population But since Santa Clarita is a relatively new area, the population is mostly young families or middle aged adults. “We have a younger population,” she said. “The real capacity needs are driven by seniors.” As a result, the most demand at Mayo has been directed at the maternity ward and emergency room, where 23 percent of patients have been under the age of 14, Bogdan said. In response to that need, work began last year on a $13.6 million expansion of the 8,000-square-foot emergency room that will double it and add 11 beds and rooms for cardiac care and pediatrics. The project is about halfway complete, with completion slated for next fall. Mayo is also considering a plan to turn a 27-bed transitional care unit used by the elderly and recovering patients into an acute care ward to treat emergencies. Plans are also in the work to add a new office building and parking structure on the property. While those services should serve the younger population for now, hospital officials are already preparing for when they get older, Bogdan said. A 2,500-square-foot cardiac catheterization laboratory to treat heart attack victims is slated to open next year. Currently, the closest cath lab is in the Valley, Bogdan said. “This population is large enough and getting old enough to need to have that service locally,” Bogdan said. All told, Bogdan said Mayo has to act quickly to handle the increases. “We have to start building now to make sure we don’t run out of beds for the next 25 years,” she said. A growing Antelope Valley It’s a similar story in Antelope Valley, the fastest growing area in L.A. County. Like the Santa Clarita Valley, the growth is putting pressure on the region’s two acute care facilities, Lancaster Community Hospital and Antelope Valley Hospital. While the Antelope Valley has two to Santa Clarita’s one hospital, the facilities together cover a much larger area just north of Santa Clarita well into Kern County. “We only have two hospitals in our market and both are extremely busy,” said Bob Trautman, chief executive of Lancaster Community. “As a result, a lot of people have to leave the area for hospitalization and medical care. It’s a community problem.” Antelope Valley Hospital’s coverage area is an astounding 3,000 square miles; its emergency room in 2004-2005 handled 98,000 visits, making it the second busiest emergency department in Los Angeles County. In response, the board of directors for the 379-bed facility in July approved spending $5.9 million to design the first phase of a master facilities plan for the hospital. While plans are still being worked out, suggestions include expanding the emergency room by up to 9,000 square feet and increasing ER beds from 24 and building a new tower for 150 patients and additional office buildings. More than $87 million has been earmarked, on top of the $24 million the hospital just spent on the Women and Infants Pavilion that opened this summer. Across town, the 119-bed Lancaster Community Hospital also has little room to grow. “Our current facility is very old and space is very limited,” Trautman said. As a result, the hospital’s publicly-traded corporate parent, Pennsylvania-based Universal Health Services, is building a $170 million new hospital in Palmdale. Palmdale Regional Medical Center is slated to open in late 2007 and will include two medical office buildings and the 171- bed main hospital. Still, the project is at least two years from completion, which doesn’t help things at Lancaster right now. Hospitals staffers are grappling with more patients, less help and not enough space, said Trautman, who also serves as the regional head for Universal Health Services. “We’re doing some out of the box thinking,” he said. “We’re doing some things so that people get in and out quicker. That’s worked well for us.” The County Board of Supervisors has also approved constructing a $98 million, 124,000-square-foot ambulatory center on 15 acres at Avenue I and 3rd Street East in Lancaster. It could open as soon as 2010. Not surprisingly, the fervent demand has also triggered a growth of doctor-owned and outpatient clinics in the region. The most significant so far has been an 83,000-square-foot health center opened last year by Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills. The $40 million clinic in the Santa Clarita Valley Medical Plaza in Valencia offers outpatient surgery service, cancer care and imaging. Such projects, of course, mean more demand for nurses and other staff, something that’s been difficult in recent years given the crippling nursing shortage. Albert said College of the Canyons is bracing for even more demand. “As a school, we’re trying very hard to keep up to meet the needs of the community,” she said. Still, Trautman, the Lancaster executive, said that while the new Palmdale hospital will certainly alleviate the capacity issue, it is still only a temporary measure. The population is expected to keep growing, he said. “That’s the projection by economists,” he said. “There is a concern.”

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