Securing the Safety Net

A county plans to buy a bankrupt hospital.
by | December 2004

At a time when private and public hospitals in California are shutting doors or scaling back services, Ventura County is bucking the trend by offering $2.75 million to buy a bankrupt local hospital.

Ventura County hopes to re-open Santa Paula Memorial Hospital by next spring or summer. If a bankruptcy judge approves the plan, it would bolster the county's health care safety net for the poor and uninsured, while improving medical access for everyone living in the Santa Clara Valley northwest of Los Angeles. Since the hospital closed last December, the valley's 60,000 residents, including many farm workers, have had to travel 20 miles to the main county hospital for medical emergencies.

California has been experiencing something of a hospital crisis lately. Burdened by the cost of uninsured patients and expensive state mandates, dozens of hospitals around the state have closed in recent years. In Los Angeles County, where six hospitals have closed since January, the county board of supervisors is currently trying to save one struggling county hospital by closing its trauma center and bringing in private consultants to manage its other operations.

The same forces drove the Santa Paula hospital into bankruptcy. Ventura County proposes to pay off the hospital's debt by selling land surrounding the facility to housing developers. As for day-to-day operations, county officials think they can improve the hospital's economics by attracting more patients with insurance and by collecting federal subsidies for uninsured patients. "We're not going to get rich doing this," says Kirk Watson, deputy director of the Ventura County Health Care Agency. "But we think we can make it work."