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Last Ditch Effort to Save High Desert Hospital Faltering

Last Ditch Effort to Save High Desert Hospital Faltering By JACQUELINE FOX Staff Reporter. Concerns are mounting that an eleventh-hour plan to save High Desert Hospital in Antelope Valley from closing may not work, and the facility will become a victim of the county’s widening budget gap. The hospital was told in June of 2002 it needed to come up with a plan to raise $10 million over the next five years to avoid closure. The 14-member High Desert Hospital Advisory Committee proposed and received approval to conduct a six-month trial program to rent out its unused beds for extra revenue. If the trial is deemed successful, High Desert would be allowed to remain open under the new business model. But although six contracts were secured by October, only three have been approved by the County Department of Health Services. A fourth contract with a local provider, Sierra Medical Group, was pulled in December, and two others, one with Kaiser Permanente and the other with the Department of Corrections, are pending. Some fear that the county would rather see the hospital close. Tom Craft, an advisory committee member, is pointing fingers at the County Department of Health Services. He’s charging the agency with stalling the project as it faces a Feb. 28 deadline for compiling a status report on the plan’s progress. The report would be used by the board of supervisors to determine whether to continue the rent-a-bed program. Other hospital officials involved in creating the plan, as well as DOHS representatives say they are doing all they can to push remaining contracts through and keep the program intact. But they also admit that the clock is ticking, and unless the hospital can show the program is viable, High Desert could once more become a target for closure by the county, which is facing a $210 billion deficit. “Here’s our difficulty,” said Craft. “This program has never been a favorite of the people at the DOHS, and they are dragging their feet. We have secured business partners who want to help us generate more money, and they have submitted contracts worth nearly the $10 million they say they need, but we’ve been specifically directed not to get into rates or money or costs with them. So all we can do is pass these verbal agreements down to the DOHS and there they sit.” Los Angeles County supervisors in 2002 voted for $57 million in health department budget cuts for the 2003 fiscal year that include converting High Desert into an outpatient clinic. But the move would have forced Antelope Valley and Lancaster Community hospitals, where overcrowding is already an issue, to take in High Desert patients. In August, the board of supervisors narrowly approved the rent-a-bed plan on a six-month trial basis. According to the DOHS, the Antelope Valley, with a population of about 340,000, has roughly 1.8 acute care beds per 1,000 residents. The national average is 2.8 beds per 1,000. High Desert Hospital is licensed for 170 beds, but because of budget constraints, uses only 82 beds. The rent-a-bed plan, according to Craft, has the potential to generate about $10 million over a five-year span. Because the three contractors now renting beds from High Desert were already sending patients to the hospital for other services, their agreements with the county were less complicated than pending contracts and implemented in early November, according to John Wallace, a DOHS spokesman. Wallace said the contract proposal with Sierra “proved too complicated for resolution.” The other two, he said, are still under consideration. Norm Hickling, also a member of the High Desert advisory committee, conceded that the time frame for getting final approval on pending contracts is taking longer than expected. But he added that the remaining contracts involve complicated details pertaining to the way payments would be distributed. And, in the case of renting beds out to inmates, there are details concerning safety as well as how the county would be paid. “The private world is different when it comes to creating contracts,” Hickling said. “These things are never easy. With healthcare, there are so many variables that need to be considered before a contract is completed. The county is working on getting the details of those variables worked out now. Hickling is the former marketing manager at High Desert Medical Group. He now works as a field deputy for Supervisor Michael Antonovich, who lobbied in favor of giving the rent-a-bed plan a chance. Craft said the advisory committee’s efforts are also being hampered because they have been told that they cannot formalize contracts with potential partners. Instead, they are directed to merely pencil out potential agreements and pass them to the hospital’s CEO, Beryl Brooks, who Craft said is in charge of putting the final proposals together. Brooks declined to comment on the status of the contracts still pending, or whether any new contracts were being negotiated. Instead, she deferred comments back to Wallace at the DOHS. Meanwhile, the board of supervisors appears to have launched another round of aggressive cuts as it tries to shore up its budget deficit. On Jan. 29 it voted to close Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey by June 30 unless it can be converted to a nonprofit. That move was made as an alternative to shuttering Olive View Medical Center in Sylmar, as well as Harbor-UCLA and King/Drew medical centers. The supervisors are lobbying heavily for more funding from the state to pay for health services. However, with the deepening budget crisis, the state is demanding that counties institute cost cutting measures before they will consider requests for additional financing. And this is exactly what has Craft worried. “They’re sitting on this because they really just want to shut us down,” said Craft. “They essentially want to (shut down High Desert) to get more funding from the state.” Wallace said the county still supports the pilot plan, but he declined to say where High Desert’s future stood, especially in light of the Feb. 28 deadline. “I think from the department’s perspective, we’ve done all we can to put the contracts in place,” said Wallace. “I think we need to give it its full chance, but if it doesn’t work, other measures will need to be looked at.” Meanwhile, Hickling said he, too, will do everything he can to keep the pilot plan alive. He and Craft, as well as the remaining advisory board members continue to meet with potential partners in hopes of securing additional contracts. “The program has a time limit on it, granted,” said Hickling. “But we are still in the process of looking for other partners. Remember, when we started back in June of 2002, there was no hope for High Desert whatsoever. Regardless of my position with the county now, my heart is in health care, and I’ve vowed to stick to my plans to help High Desert.”

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