RICHMOND -- A number of hospital and other health care officials this week challenged the notion that a share of Chevron's promised $90 million community benefits package would have been too little, too late to make a difference in the survival of beleaguered Doctors Medical Center, contradicting two City Council members who excluded the hospital when negotiating the pact.
Officials grappling for a plan to preserve services at West Contra Costa's largest hospital and emergency room -- which will stop receiving emergency ambulances Thursday morning -- point out that multiple scenarios are still being explored for DMC, including a radical downsize or freestanding emergency department. Any funding commitment, either now or in the future, would have been valuable, they say.
"What happened with the negotiations was incompetence and failure of imagination," said Dr. Sharon Drager, a DMC physician and member of the San Pablo hospital's governing board. "Smaller amounts of money over different time periods could have been used to leverage with other potential investments, but the council members obviously had pet projects that meant more to them."
Councilmen Tom Butt and Jim Rogers defended their decision to bypass funding for the hospital when they negotiated the benefits package with Chevron as a condition of its refinery modernization project, instead earmarking millions for green transportation programs and a solar farm, among other projects. They said they were told a large amount was needed immediately, and that was a deal breaker.
Rogers added this week that he thought including the hospital in the package could have dissuaded other potential funders.
Councilman Jael Myrick, who also took part in the negotiations, said he offered to take half the money from the student scholarship program he championed and divert it to the hospital, but the idea was rejected during the talks with Chevron representatives because of the timing in making the money available.
Participants said Chevron was only willing to commit the funding once it received final legal approval to begin construction on its modernization, which could still be a year or two away.
Both Dr. William Walker, director of Contra Costa County Health Services, and county Supervisor John Gioia, of Richmond, who sits on the hospital's governing board, also suggested this week that money at a later time would have helped the effort to preserve hospital services to some degree.
"It would have had to be a substantial amount of funds soon to preserve the current model, but any amount of money would have helped as we transition (to a smaller hospital)," Walker said.
Said Gioia in an email: "The council could have proposed any funding amount (e.g. $1 million, $5 million, $10 million, $27 million or whatever)."
Meanwhile, the war of words heated up between those who negotiated the package during private meetings ahead of last week's City Council vote, with Butt accusing Chevron in a Facebook post of promising to "take the bullet" for excluding DMC in the package and now "trying to weasel out and blame others."
Chevron spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie declined to address Butt's accusation, saying the company stands by its original statement that "Chevron did not decide the categories of funding. This was done by the city and the City Council members"
Chevron, which regularly touts the millions it gives to the community annually in philanthropy, said it has no plans to provide voluntary funding to DMC.
"Chevron cannot financially support the hospital beyond our existing taxes, which last year included $175,000 earmarked for DMC," she said.
While Butt accused Chevron of pinning the blame on him and fellow council members Rogers and Myrick, the Chevron lobbyist and DMC official who negotiated the package said it was the other way around. Eric Zell, board chairman of the West Contra Costa Healthcare District, which runs the hospital, met with the three council members and a Chevron public affairs specialist in area restaurants and his Point Richmond offices to hammer out the deal,
Zell maintains that he wanted money for the hospital, but the council members opted not to and now want him to take the political heat for their decisions.
"Unfortunate that council members looking for cover at my expense," Zell wrote in an email this week. "They could have spent a vast majority on DMC. Chevron was not opposed, and I certainly wasn't."
In the days leading up to the council vote, the three council members convinced Chevron to increase the community funding from $60 million to $90 million over the next decade.
The hospital, which holds 25 of the area's 40 emergency room beds and has been a primary source of medical care after past fires at Chevron's refinery, is on life support, running an $18 million annual deficit and losing workers in droves as they resign because of the grim outlook. Voters rejected a parcel tax measure earlier this year, and the county, despite pressure from hospital unions, has shown no willingness to provide funds to save it or to float a new sales tax.
"The easy answer is we don't have any money to provide to DMC," county Administrator David Twa said.
Butt insisted on his website last week that the only scenarios in which the city could have forced Chevron to help save, or postpone the closure, of DMC had "fatal flaws," including the inability to access the money immediately.
Rogers, who secured millions for green transportation projects that he has championed in the past, said he gave up his efforts to get money for DMC because there was no guarantee the money would have saved some form of the hospital, and that future dollars earmarked for the hospital might be a signal for other potential funders to pull back rather than chip in. Rogers also noted that his favored transit-oriented programs satisfied greenhouse gas mitigation requirements linked to the project's approval.
"If there was money up front that actually had gotten the hospital to stay open, we would have gone for it," Rogers said. "But taking from some other programs to give money to some unknown operation two or three years from now, which may do no good because other funders may cut their contributions? No, that's not as high a priority."
Gioia pointed out that in 2008, when a larger Chevron project was envisioned -- but was later halted in court -- and the council agreed on a community benefits package, it also did not include money for DMC. It did earmark $6 million for a nonprofit health clinic, he said.
A health care district board meeting to update the public on DMC's future was canceled this week, and doctors and county political and health officials met with state leaders in Sacramento on Monday to plea for more funding. Gioia said state health officials were noncommittal because in part of their own budget problems.
Meanwhile, DMC's crisis deepens, and officials say they need to make a decision this month on how to restructure the hospital to avoid closure.
Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/sfbaynewsrogers.