Hoping to finally close a significant gap in the region's emergency medical network, Los Angeles County officials are proposing a new trauma center to serve residents of Pomona and the eastern San Gabriel Valley.
Officials have been trying for years to put a trauma center in the area, saying patients now travel too far to receive care for the most critical injuries. The nearest trauma center to Pomona is 28 miles away, at County-USC Medical Center in Boyle Heights.
"You have to be airlifted to the nearest trauma facility that will take you," said Supervisor Hilda Solis, who represents the San Gabriel Valley. "Every minute is one minute of life that is taken from you."
The plan by the county's Department of Health Services would place the new center at Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center and requires approval from the Board of Supervisors. The process of obtaining a trauma center designation could take more than a year and requires review and certification by the American College of Surgeons.
The move is part of an ongoing effort to rebuild L.A. County emergency medical care after years of contraction.
At its peak in 1985, the county's trauma center network included 22 hospitals spread strategically throughout the county. But many hospitals shut down their centers because of funding problems, leaving only 14 to treat about 25,000 patients a year. Trauma centers, which are emergency room units staffed and equipped to treat patients who are critically injured in shootings, car crashes and disasters, are expensive because they require keeping specialist physicians and teams on call around the clock and maintaining costly equipment.
The new trauma center would be funded by both the hospital and funds from Measure B, a parcel tax approved by county voters to help support a trauma center network.
Friday's announcement comes amid a dispute over how $250 million generated annually by Measure B is distributed among the county's trauma centers. Last week, Antelope Valley Hospital in Lancaster filed a legal claim accusing county officials of shortchanging the medical facility, saying the $1 million a year it receives is disproportionately low.
With Pomona Valley added to the network, "that obviously does mean a little bit less for everybody," said Jennifer Bayer, vice president for external affairs for the Hospital Assn. of Southern California. But she added, "I think it was agreed that there was definitely a need out there. There was a gaping hole."
Antelope Valley Hospital attorney Patrick McNicholas said he's supportive of the county using Measure B funding to open a new trauma center. However, he added that "if the county is saying that there is money available to open a new trauma center, that would be indicative of Antelope Valley Hospital's point that there have been Measure B monies available and that Antelope Valley has been underfunded."
Contract negotiations to determine how much tax support Pomona Valley would receive for the new center are continuing, officials said. Starting a trauma center typically requires a multimillion-dollar investment.
Even before Friday's announcement, county officials were reexamining funding allocations for trauma centers in light of changes occurring under the federal healthcare overhaul.
And a state audit last year found Measure B was generating as much as $11 million more annually than was being given to hospitals.
County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who has expressed support for adding a trauma center in South Los Angeles, said the proposed new center shouldn't make it harder for others to open.
"It becomes the responsibility, the challenge and the opportunity for the Board of Supervisors to figure it out," he said. "I believe we can do it. Where there's a will, there's a way."
The need extends beyond the San Gabriel Valley, he said, adding that the county may have to look for ways to fund additional trauma centers, either with existing revenue or a new tax measure.
The state audit found that the closure of trauma centers in the 1980s left parts of the county, including Malibu, the eastern San Gabriel Valley, and large swaths of the Antelope Valley without nearby trauma centers. And the audit specifically recommended the county increase efforts to open a trauma center in the eastern San Gabriel Valley. Subsequently, county health officials requested applications from hospitals in the area, said Cathy Chidester, director of the county Emergency Medical Systems agency.
Pomona Valley, which once had a trauma center, was proposed for the new center over Citrus Valley Medical Center-Queen of the Valley Campus in West Covina. Since eastern San Gabriel Valley lost its center, patients have continued to receive timely care, Chidester said. But "shorter transportation time is always better."
"We're excited to have them part of the system again," Chidester said.