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Harris discusses looming decision on sale of Catholic hospitals

Atty. Gen. Harris drawing near to decision on sale of struggling California Catholic hospitals

California Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris said she is nearing a decision on the hotly debated proposed sale of a chain of struggling Catholic hospitals to a for-profit company in Ontario.

“We’re going to be looking at it and making a decision based on protecting access to healthcare services and maintaining the continuity of care -- that's a big concern and a big issue -- and then protecting workers," Harris said. "And we’ll decide sometime this week.”

Harris is facing a Friday deadline to decide whether to sign off on Prime Healthcare Services Inc.'s proposed purchase of six California hospitals operated by the Daughters of Charity Health System.

Two of the hospitals are in Southern California: St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood and St. Vincent Medical Center near downtown.

The sale has divided organized labor, with the SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West opposing the sale and the California Nurses Assn. advocating for it.

The SEIU-UHW, which represents thousands of Daughters of Charity workers, says Prime Healthcare is a bad fit because it has shown a history of cutting services to improve profits.

Advocating the sale is the CNA, which says Prime Healthcare is the best option to keep the hospitals open, preserve jobs and employee pensions.

Both unions have contributed to Harris' campaigns in the past. And the support of organized labor could be vital to her announced run for the Senate.

Harris said union support is "absolutely not" a factor in her decision-making on the sale of the hospital chain. The attorney general oversees charities in the state and must approve the sale of any nonprofit hospital.

"There are many people who have supported me over the years and there is zero connection between who supports me and the decisions that we make," Harris said.

Prime Healthcare has said the SEIU-UHW opposition is related to a longstanding labor disagreement and no indication about the quality of its hospital management capabilities. The rapidly growing San Bernardino County company owns 30 hospitals in nine states; if the sale is approved, it would become one of the top five hospital companies in the United States.

"Prime Healthcare is the best and only option to save these hospitals, continue their charitable care and honor the pensions of 17,000 current and former workers," the company said in a statement. "We hope that politics does not jeopardize what is clearly the right decision and the sale is approved with fair conditions that allow these hospitals to have a financially stable future and continue their mission of service.”

Robert Issai, chief executive of the Daughters of Charity, has urged Harris to approve the sale. He said the hospital network is losing more than $10 million per month and will file for bankruptcy if the sale is not approved. Issai said he would not agree to an extension for Harris' decision.

"Our situation is so difficult right now, if she asks for an extension, my position is 'no,'" Issai said. "I've been clear: If she denies this, we're going to cut services and start right-sizing in preparation for bankruptcy."

History should concern supporters of the deal. In 2011, Harris blocked the sale of a Victorville  hospital to Prime Healthcare's nonprofit division, saying the sale was "not in the public interest and will likely create a significant effect on the availability or accessibility of healthcare services to the affected community."

Still, Issai said, he remains hopeful.

"I've got 140 nuns praying every day, so it's got to mean something," he said.

Twitter: @spfeifer22

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