The Orange County Board of Supervisors, which has long had a troubled relationship with UCI Medical Center, overruled its own advisory panel Tuesday and refused to let the hospital operate a base station for paramedics.
By a 3-2 vote, the supervisors awarded the station to Western Medical Center in Santa Ana, giving that hospital the right to operate one of six facilities in the county where medical personnel communicate via radio with paramedics at the scene of injuries and accidents, providing advice and directing them to hospitals.
The base stations are a key part of the county’s trauma care system, in which severely injured patients are directed to one of four designated hospitals that provide immediate, life-saving care. Both UCI Medical Center and Western Medical Center are participants in the county’s trauma system.
UCI Medical Center in Orange notified the board earlier this year that, as of March 31, it could no longer afford to operate the base station it had been manning for several years. The hospital, which provides care to the county’s poor, among many patients, has run up significant debts in recent years and is looking for ways to cut costs.
However, soon after announcing that it was terminating the base station, the hospital decided to try to get the base station back. A five-person advisory panel reporting on the issue recommended unanimously that the base station contract go back to UCI Medical Center.
The board disagreed, with Supervisors Harriet Wieder, Roger Stanton and Ralph Clark voting for Western Medical Center. Supervisors Thomas F. Riley and Bruce Nestande voted for UCI Medical Center.
Leon Schwartz, vice chancellor and acting director of the medical center, conceded after Tuesday’s vote that “in retrospect, it was a mistake” to close the base station, which serves paramedics in Santa Ana, Orange, Villa Park and some unincorporated areas.
Schwartz did not give a precise cost to operate a base station, but said it would be less than the $250,000 mentioned by some supervisors. He explained that the hospital could use staff members performing other duties to help out at the station.
Stanton, who led the battle to award the base station to Western Medical Center, said that the “university has demonstrated, perhaps through no fault of its own . . . less than reliable action in the past.”
He added that Western Medical Center, by contrast, had “a demonstrated track record of reliability” and had helped stepped into the breach in the past after UCI Medical Center ended various programs and the county was caught short.
Four years ago, in a dispute over more than $11 million in debts that the university claimed it was owed by the county, University of California regents ordered the medical center to terminate mental health services for the county and also end outpatient services for county patients at community clinics, Stanton noted.
In both cases, Stanton said, Western Medical Center stepped in to provide the services as a substitute for UCI Medical Center.
Western Medical Center also picked up support from Santa Ana Mayor Dan Griset and Santa Ana Fire Chief William J. Reimer.
Reimer said that the “hasty decision on the part of UCI” to close the base station “has had a sustaining negative impact” on Santa Ana’s emergency medical services. He said parceling out the services to other hospitals as a stop-gap measure caused confusion among paramedics and hospitals.
Stanton and Wieder questioned what the effect would be on a base station if UCI Medical Center is taken over by American Medical International, a private hospital chain.
AMI has proposed paying UC Irvine a minimum of $3 million a year for the takeover, according to a preliminary draft of the chain’s management proposal. The medical center incurred a debt of about $10 million last year.
UCI’s Schwartz said the talks with AMI are still in the preliminary stage, but that even if the takeover occurs, “I think any organization would be very proud to be involved in such a facility” as the base station.
Other UCI Medical Center emergency care providers were also upset by the board’s action.
Dr. Kym Salness, the hospital’s emergency department director, said that closing the base station “cuts at the heart and soul of what a university should be doing.”