At a time when the Ventura County Health Care Agency is squeezed by a shortage of state dollars, seven top agency officials and physicians have scheduled a $16,000 trip to Maui in late January to attend a weeklong conference on improving hospital administration.
The county officials said it is important that they attend the conference that is to offer advice from the nation’s experts on problems such as those facing administrators who are reorganizing the Ventura County Medical Center.
Pierre Durand, the county’s assistant health care director, said information from past seminars helped administrators turn around the medical center, which had accumulated more than $20 million in losses by 1986.
“We pick what we feel is the best national conference with the top national experts,” Durand said. “We cannot allow ourselves to get stale. . . .”
But the expense of the trip to Maui has raised concerns among some county officials and a watchdog group for taxpayers.
“If they were holding the conference in Pico Rivera and these people wanted to go, that would be fine,” said Jere Robings, executive director of Ventura County Taxpayers Assn. “I don’t think it looks good to the taxpayers for county staff to be taking trips to Maui.”
County Supervisor Maggie Erickson and Chief Administrative Officer Richard Wittenberg, who have decided to cancel their reservations for the conference, questioned the cost of the trip. They also worry about the public perception of using tax dollars to go to a tropical island in midwinter.
“It frustrates me that it is in Maui because it raises such a question,” said Erickson, a strong advocate of the Jan. 27-Feb. 1 conference held by the Estes Park Institute, a nonprofit organization that sponsors medical seminars. She decided not to go because the seminar would conflict with her wedding and honeymoon plans in late January.
“This one is very expensive, unusually so, and that has bothered me,” said Wittenberg, who also supports the conference. He said he wants to stay in Ventura County to be available to the county’s two newly elected supervisors, Maria VanderKolk and Vicki Howard, when they assume office in January.
Those scheduled to attend the conference are Phillipp K. Wessels, director of the county’s Health Care Agency; Durand; Dr. Samuel Edwards, director of the county’s medical center; Dr. Richard Ashby, the medical center’s assistant director; Dr. Thomas McBreen, president of the county medical staff, and Patricia Rumpza, associate administrator for patient services.
Jonette Duchai, another hospital administrator, has been named as the probable replacement for Ronald A. Pavellas, who left his job as hospital administrator after being scheduled to attend the conference.
Tuition for the popular Estes Park conference costs $675 for each participant. The county has prepaid $1,066 per person for five nights at the Westin Maui, records show. With air fare and other expenses, county officials estimate that the conference will cost the county slightly more than $16,000.
As members or staff of the Medical Center Oversight Committee, delegations of county officials have attended the Estes Park conferences in past years at Monterey, Calif., and Naples, Fla.
But Erickson, chairwoman of the oversight committee, is having second thoughts about the Maui conference. She said the committee at its Dec. 7 meeting may decide to send a smaller delegation or attend another conference later in the year.
“There are concerns on every front about spending money,” Erickson said. “Given the situation we are facing now with tighter budgets, maybe only some of the oversight committee should be going.”
Bobbi Ryan, vice president of the Estes Park Institute of Englewood, Colo., said Ventura County administrators are among the few who attend from public hospitals. Nearly all of the participants are from private hospitals, she said.
Estes Park likes to hold conferences in attractive spots to garner interest, she added.
Wittenberg said information from the Estes Park conferences helps officials run the county medical center more like a private hospital, reducing taxpayer subsidies to levels far lower than in other counties.
He said the Maui conference was selected because of its subject matter, not its location. The conference, entitled “9 Hospital Problems of the 1990s and What to Do About Them,” has sessions ranging from financing health care for the poor to a patient’s right to die.
“This is one of the best things that our oversight committee can do,” Erickson said. “If you look at what we have done with hospital finances and operating our clinics on an entrepreneurial basis to save money . . . it becomes worth it.”