Doctors Medical Center propped up by state funds, long-term still in doubt

on October 5, 2014

Doctors Medical Center (DMC) in San Pablo has been on life support for years, and the state’s $3 million reprieve isn’t enough to sustain it as a full-service functional hospital beyond March 2015, according to a report published by The Stakeholder Group, an independent team of health care experts working with hospital officials.

Gov. Jerry Brown on Sept. 27 signed Senate Bill 883, which was co-authored by East Bay legislators, State Sen. Loni Hancock and Assemblymember Nancy Skinner.  The bill allocated the $3 million in funding to help prop up DMC so that it could continue operating beyond 2014.

DMC, which serves many thousands of poor and minority patients in West Contra Costa County, seemed destined to close after voters turned down a local parcel tax in May. The hospital filed for bankruptcy in 2006 and has been operating with an annual deficit of around $18 million, the Contra Costa Times reported last month. An earthquake retrofit for the hospital would add an additional $100 million to the running deficit, hospital officials said in a press release.

When the governor signed his name to the funds for the DMC senate bill, he authorized the $3 million to be withdrawn from the state’s Major Risk Medical Insurance Fund, which uses taxes from cigarettes and tobacco surtaxes to fill its coffers.

The revenue from cigarette taxes in 2013 totaled up to $782,115,000, almost 40 times DMC’s $18 million annual deficit, according to the California State Board of Equalization.

The steady revenue streams that private hospitals have from privately-insured patients, or from memberships as in the case of Kaiser Permanente, are not as plentiful or available to DMC, which cares for many indigent and uninsured patients. Most of DMC patients are on MediCARE or MediCAL, which provide lower reimbursement rates.

As the “only free standing hospital in the area for miles” delivering care to a large underserved community, it’s essential to keep DMC open, Sen. Hancock’s Communications Director Larry Levin said.

DMC  is “in crisis,” said Sharon Drager,  a vascular surgeon and former chief of the DMC Medical Staff.  An outspoken advocate, Dr. Drager said she is seeking to save the hospital so people who live on the west side of the county have access to health care, whether they have private insurance or not.

As part of a recent roundtable discussion with graduate students at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, Dr. Drager said she wrote a letter to Gov. Brown saying an “act of social injustice is unfolding” with the loss of DMC as a neighborhood hospital.

“(DMC) is the only public hospital located in West Contra Costa County and lies in close proximity to over a third of Contra Costa County’s low income residents,” Assemblywoman Skinner said in a statement. “Senator Hancock and my bill, SB 883 (formerly AB 39) provides a $3 million lifeline to the West Contra Costa Health Care District (WCCHC) to support DMC while the WCCHC, advocates, and others explore permanent solutions to this healthcare access crisis.”

If no further action is taken to extend the $3 million lifeline and shore up sustainable funding the hospital may close its doors, or scale down to an outpatient care facility early next year. Those who currently rely on DMC will need to go to Contra Costa Regional Medical Center, 20 miles away in Martinez, for access to a public hospital.

DMC informed patients by press prelease on Aug. 24 that those “needing emergency medical care will be transported to the closest available basic emergency department, which may vary based on the location of the patient.”

In an editorial in the Contra Costa Times, County Supervisor John Gioia said the county should “clear the way for transitioning the financially failing Doctors Medical Center into a satellite emergency facility” which would reduce costs and draw assistance from other healthcare providers.

In 2011 The Abaris Group, a medical consulting firm in Walnut Creek, said in a report that closing DMC’s emergency room and ambulance diversion would impact other local facilities and patient outcomes.

“In the event of such a closure, Kaiser-Richmond will experience 80 – 100 new ED patients per day on top of the 78 it already sees daily,” the report said.

Administrators with the hospital said they’re doing all they can do to preserve the hospital and are looking for long-term solutions.

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