SAN PABLO -- Hoping to build last-minute support from tax-weary voters and counter a torrent of recent anti-tax mailers, proponents of the May 6 mail-in ballot campaign to pass a parcel tax to save Doctors Medical Center San Pablo held a telephone town hall meeting Monday night.
Hospital CEO Dawn Gideon, Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, of Richmond, and vascular surgeon Dr. Sharon Drager led the one-hour telephone town hall, the second in a month, to assuage growing concerns that the 14-cent per square foot parcel tax measure wouldn't save the hospital and is just a bridge to an imminent plan to build a new hospital and sell the current site to a local casino. Those claims have been made recently by opponents.
"Accusations that a casino is (planned) to spring up where (the hospital) is are not true," Gioia said.
Voters in the West Contra Costa Healthcare District, which comprises about 100,000 voters, are already mailing in their ballots for the parcel tax, which supporters say is needed to keep open the area's only public safety-net hospital. The ballot measure needs two-thirds voter approval to pass and would take effect in July if approved.
Measure C would generate an estimated $20 million annually for the hospital, which is hemorrhaging about $1.5 million every month despite cost cutting and new revenues that have cut the operating deficit by about half in recent years. The tax would cost an owner of a 1,500-square-foot house $210 per year. Organizers said about 1,300 people called into the town hall meeting.
Gideon, Gioia and Drager, a member of the hospital's governing body, took questions from several callers and spoke on a range of points regarding why the tax would benefit the community. They said the hospital is in dire financial straits despite shaving about $24 million in operating expenses since 2008, because of low reimbursement rates for Medicare and Medi-Cal. DMC provides 25 of the 40 emergency room beds in West County, has the only cardiac and stroke center, supports 900 local jobs and has no choice but to ask residents for more money to stay open.
"No stone has been left unturned" in the search for new funds, Gideon said. Gideon added that the Affordable Care Act, with its cuts to Medicare reimbursement rates, has exacerbated the hospital's short-term budget troubles.
Opponents of the tax, led by a mix of wealthy property owners and grass-roots volunteer homeowners, say the tax is too much on an already overburdened, low-income community and falls short of guaranteeing the hospital's long-term survival. West County residents are already saddled with a litany of special taxes, including two previous parcel taxes for the hospital, and face at least three more on the ballot this year. Unlike previous, smaller parcel taxes for the hospital, Measure C has sparked a heated debate and triggered organized opposition, a fact that supporters concede has dimmed the outlook for passage.
"It is a struggle to save every month for these taxes," wrote Mark Howe in a letter to Gioia earlier this month. Howe owns hundreds of thousands of square feet of rentable commercial space in the district.
During Tuesday's town hall, some residents said they are scraping by on fixed incomes and wondered why county, state or federal funds couldn't be used to shore up the hospital's finances.
Gioia said the county and state and other area nonprofit hospitals have chipped in millions to DMC in the past, but that funding has dried up. The county, which runs the hospital in Martinez, also can't take over DMC and fund it. Residents must dig into their own pockets to save the hospital, Gioia said.
"The county is not in a position with its own budget to take on a hospital with an $18 million deficit," Gioia said. "The county would have to cut its own health services to take on the loss at this hospital. The (budget) gap needs to be closed before we get any affiliation, including with the county."
Gioia and Gideon said the long-term plan remains to close the budget gap with Measure C to make the hospital a more desirable target for absorption by a larger health care system. A smaller, more modern facility may be cost-effective in the future, they said.
But if Measure C fails, supporters said, the hospital will close this summer.
"We are all potentially DMC patients," Drager said. "Our cardiac and stroke center provides state-of-the-art care that Kaiser Richmond and Alta Bates and (county hospital in) Martinez can't, so those patients will need to go farther to Concord or Oakland, and that will probably result in some people losing their lives."