Contra Costa Times: Richmond council weighs options for cash-strapped hospital

blogimage.jpgRICHMOND -- The City Council took a unanimous step forward Tuesday night to allocate $15 million in promised community grants from Chevron toward the beset Doctors Medical Center, with the aim of keeping the community hospital open as a full-service, acute care facility.

The deal, proposed by Richmond City Manger Bill Lindsay after the council directed him two weeks ago to look for solutions, is a three-year plan that would include contributions from a number of community partners.

To close the $18 million annual funding gap DMC faces, Lindsay proposed yearly contributions of $5 million from Richmond via the Chevron Environmental and Community Investment Agreement, nearly $3 million in debt forgiveness from Contra Costa County, $4.3 from nearby hospitals to pay down the rest of the debt service, $5 million from a new parcel tax and $800,000 in cost reductions at the hospital.

In his presentation to the council, Lindsay stressed that none of the proposed partnerships were certain and to save the hospital the package would have to come together before the new year because the hospital will be out of operating costs by the end of February and will begin a transition plan in January.

"If this is going to work a lot of moving parts have to come together, very quickly," Councilmember Jael Myrick said during his motion to approve that city staff continue to try and find partners for the plan, and move quickly to get $4 million to DMC by the end of the year to cover further operating costs.

"If it makes DMC a full service, stable hospital then I believe it's worth the sacrifice," he said, referring to the $10.5 million that would be diverted from Richmond Promise, a college scholarship program for public school students in Richmond, to fund DMC.

Eric Zell, director of the West Contra Costa Health Care District that manages the hospital, said that he and other administrators have been working for years to find a long term funding solution for the hospital. Much of what was presented to the council were plans that he and others in the district, and in its stakeholders group, have been considering and trying to negotiate.

"We the district are continuing to work toward saving a full service hospital," Zell said, in a phone interview before the meeting. He added that the proposed plan could buy some time, but is not an ultimate solution.

For the funding to come together in time, the city would need to ensure that Chevron begins construction on its $1 billion modernization project at the Richmond refinery by January -- a feat made more difficult by pending litigation.

"The availability of that money is linked to the ability to implement our modernization project," Heather Kulp, a spokeswoman for the company, said during public comment. She added that the two environmental community groups, Communities for a Better Environment and Asian Pacific Environmental Network, involved in litigation against the oil giant are an obstacle. "Ask CBE and APEN to stop standing in the way of this project," she told the council.

In addition to the difficulty of getting the needed Chevron money in time, the proposal also hinges on attempts that have failed in the past, including convincing nearby hospitals to further support an unsustainable model and levying a parcel tax on residents. A parcel tax that would have saved the hospital by bringing in $20 million annually failed earlier this year to gain the necessary two-thirds vote.

Mayor Gayle McLaughlin provided some levity and optimism toward the end of the discussion with an unusual analogy.

"How do you eat an elephant?" she asked, "One bite at a time."

Reposted from the Contra Costa Times.

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