Doctors Hospital is once more on the brink of financial collapse. It has had a financially unsustainable revenue stream for decades. Let's look at a little history.
The West County Healthcare District owns and operates Doctors Hospital. The district was formed in 1948 for the purpose of building Brookside Hospital. Brookside operated from its opening in 1954 until 1997. In 1997, the district affiliated with Tenet HealthSystems to operate Brookside. Tenet changed the name to Doctors Hospital. In 2004, Tenet bailed out because the hospital was not financially sustainable.
In 2004, the residents of the district passed a parcel tax of $52 to keep the hospital open. Again, in a desperate attempt to keep the hospital going, they passed another parcel tax of $47 in 2011.
Doctor's went into bankruptcy in 2006. It finally emerged later with the help of $12 million in cash from Kaiser Permanente and another $3 million from John Muir. But the facts remain that 80 percent of its patients are either on MediCal or Medicare, 10 percent have private insurance and the rest can't pay at all.
While all of this was going on with Doctors, another hospital, Los Medanos in Pittsburg, closed. Again, unsustainable financially. What does this have to do with Doctors? Nothing directly, but should have.
Meanwhile, the county board of supervisors was figuring out how to replace their old and earthquake-unsafe Merrithew Hospital. This was a contentious project with debates on whether the new hospital should be built in Martinez.
Finally, with a strong push by the unions and strong advocating by one supervisor, Jeff Smith (he was also a doctor at Merrithew at the same time), the board decided to build the new hospital in Martinez at a cost of $87 million.
With two fully equipped hospitals available to them, Los Medanos and Doctors, the board opted for the new $87 million one in Martinez. Instead of building new, the board should have purchased these two hospitals and operated them as county hospitals. I am sure that the cost to purchase and for any necessary remodeling would be far less than $87 million.
But more importantly, Martinez is one of the most difficult cities in the county to get to by public transportation. Since the majority of county patients live in East and West County, Martinez is the wrong location.
With Los Medanos in the east and Doctors in the west, they would be ideally located where the patients are. The decision to build in Martinez was a political one, not one based on service to the county residents.
Under state law, the county and the board has to ensure that health care is available to its medically indigent residents. Should Doctors close, how will it meet this mandate from the state? Kaiser, John Muir, etc., are not responsible to bail out Doctors Hospital, the county is.
Finding a partner to join with or take over this failing enterprise is difficult, if not impossible. With decades of financial failure, Doctors has little to offer. And with Obamacare enrolling more people in MediCal, the financial picture is likely to worsen.
With Doctors on the brink of bankruptcy or, even worse, closing, the board must take the responsibility for bailing it out. Having made the wrong decision back in 1996 to build a new hospital in Martinez, the supervisors were heavy contributors to Doctors' potential demise.
If Doctors closes, it will be a tragedy for the people of West County. The county hospital in Martinez would likely not be a reasonable alternative for most of them because of the difficulty getting there by public transportation.
It is imperative for the board to provide the necessary financial resources. Even better, the county should buy out Doctors and make it a branch county hospital.
Maybe it's not too late to partially correct that bad mistake made back in 1996.
Ken Hambrick is a resident of Walnut Creek.