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Community Speaks Out Against Possible Closure Of Nonprofit Hospital In San Luis Obispo, California

September 15, 2003
Leslie Bennett, Consumers Union (415) 431-6747, ext. 137
Michelle Jun, Consumers Union (415) 431-6747, ext. 116

More Than A Hundred Attend Attorney General Hearing

SAN LUIS OBISPO, CA – California’s most recent hospital conversion drew over a hundred residents and advocates to the Veterans’ Memorial Building. Dozens of concerned persons spoke out against the possible closure of French Hospital Medical Center. The closure has been proposed as one scenario in the sale of French Hospital and Arroyo Grande Community Hospital in San Luis Obispo and Corona Regional Medical Center in Corona to for-profit Universal Health Services, Inc. (“UHS”).
UHS, based in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, owns 100 hospitals and other medical facilities in the U.S., Puerto Rico and France. Four of its hospitals are located in California: Lancaster Community Hospital, Inland Valley Regional Medical Center, Rancho Springs Medical Center and Del Amo Hospital.
UHS representatives said they will continue to operate Arroyo Grande and French Hospitals for 5 years as acute care facilities for as long as they owned the facilities. However, UHS asked the Attorney General to support an option to consolidate Arroyo Grande and French Hospital, close French or sell both facilities if they become too “burdensome.”
San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Khatchik Achadjian expressed alarm that French Hospital may halt operations so soon after the June 2003 closure of San Luis Obispo General Hospital, the county’s only public hospital. “Universal said there are plenty of beds for us if French closes, but it is unclear whether that takes into account significant population growth of over 18,000 homes and approximately 70,000 people in the near future.” Achadjian continued, “We are not talking about a video rental or furniture store, we are losing a vital hospital in our community.”
Abby Lassen, a volunteer attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance said, “UHS’ proposal fails to address several critical factors including a consideration of the specialized types of beds, the distance of the hospitals from the population and the age and other significant demographic characteristics.”
French provides important health services to the community and is the only provider for certain services such as inpatient psychiatric care and dental surgeries for the developmentally disabled. It also maintains the county’s only helipad. Supervisor Shirley Bianchi, also a member of the San Luis Obispo Mental Health Board questioned the fate of the county’s inpatient psychiatric services. She said, “If French closes, the closest inpatient psychiatric unit would be in Santa Barbara, which is over 30 miles away.”
Community leaders, healthcare advocates, medical staff and elected representatives testified at the hearing and called on the Attorney General to impose conditions on the sale to protect the delivery of healthcare to the community. County Public Health Officer, Dr. Greg Thomas spoke about French’s critical role as a healthcare provider. Dr. Thomas continued, “French provides 24% of the nonpsychiatric beds, 36% staffed beds and nearly 40% of ER visits from San Luis Obispo city of which 53% of these patients are admitted to the hospital.”
Medical staff at competing Sierra Vista and Twin Cities hospitals also spoke out against the closure of French Hospital. “If French closes, the county will be left with only one Obstetrics unit,” Dana Justesen, a Sierra Vista Obstetrics nurse said. “In the ten days before the hearing, Sierra Vista Hospital closed its Obstetrics unit twice because it could not admit any more new patients due to the lack of beds.” A similar situation would possibly occur in emergency units if French closes. Dr. Brian Roberts, Director of Emergency Rooms at Sierra Vista and Twin Cities said, “I will need 8 more beds the day French closes to handle the increase in patients and we need years to gear up for that change.”
Other issues, such as the delivery of care to the indigent population were raised by the public. UHS stated that it will use its “best efforts” to provide the same charity care policies that were in place at Arroyo Grande and French. “That’s not enough of a guarantee,” said Michelle Jun, Staff Attorney at Consumers Union. “UHS should be required to continue the same charity care policies at these hospitals and be penalized if it doesn’t.” Ms. Jun asked UHS what policies it would implement regarding care for the uninsured.
“Universal should be required to maintain the current level of emergency room capacity and services delivered by these hospitals,” said Leslie Bennett, Staff Attorney at Consumers Union, “It should provide a certain number of patient days for Medi-Cal patients at French even if that facility is closed or sold and provide alternatives if French ceases to operate as an acute care hospital with 24-hour emergency room services.”
A health impact statement on the transaction is expected to be released by the beginning of November, in which the Attorney General will hold another public hearing to obtain comments on the report. The Attorney General expects to issue a final decision by the end of November.

For the Michelle Jun testimony click here.

For the Leslie Bennett testimony click here.