Official Doubts That County Medical Center Needs a New Wing : Health: Spokesman for a private Ventura hospital says the $46-million proposal is a ploy to compete for patients.


A spokesman for a private Ventura hospital has questioned the need for a major new wing at the nearby Ventura County Medical Center, insisting that the proposal is part of an aggressive county plan to compete for patients and not just treat the poor.

“There is no legislative mandate for the county to engage in the private practice of medicine,” said Donald L. Benton, spokesman for Community Memorial Hospital’s board of trustees. “If the private sector can provide what is necessary, then I would rather see tax dollars go to libraries and fire protection.”

Benton said the county is pushing a $46.7-million renovation and expansion at the medical center even though beds in local private hospitals are only half full and despite the possibility that universal health care proposed by President Clinton could make the current public system obsolete.


With so much change in the air, “what we’re saying is that there should be more investigation of how to meet the county’s needs with facilities that already exist . . . instead of rushing into an expenditure of this kind,” he said in an interview Tuesday.

Benton’s comments echoed his statements Monday at a hearing before the county Public Facilities Corp. That agency’s approval is required before the county can sell bonds to pay for improvements at the aging county hospital.

The county Board of Supervisors approved the construction program in concept last month. But county officials said the supervisors are not expected to approve the sale of bonds to pay for much of the construction until mid-1995.

Phillipp K. Wessels, head of the county Health Care Agency, said the county has never sought private patients and has no plan to compete for them against private doctors and hospitals.

He said a chart that Benton released, which outlines possible expanded county hospital services to patients with private insurance, is not a county document.

“I’ve thoroughly researched this personally, and no one in the Health Care Agency or the (county) hospital created that chart,” Wessels said. “I have no idea where it came from. It did not come from us.”


Wessels said he thought this week’s dispute--which has simmered behind the scenes for months--is the result of enormous financial problems in the private health care industry.

Payments to hospitals and doctors are down dramatically, as much as 50% for some physicians, because of the pressure from health maintenance organizations to keep costs down, Wessels said.

“We’re going through a shakeout in this industry very similar to the shakeout in the airline and savings-and-loan industries,” he said. “So what we’re hearing from other hospitals is that we should fill up their beds and pay them millions of dollars. I would do the same thing if I was in their shoes.”

The rumble is loudest from Community Memorial, which is just three blocks away from the county medical center in central Ventura.

The two hospitals have quietly coexisted for years, with Community Memorial treating relatively few Medi-Cal and indigent patients, which make up the bulk of those cared for at the county hospital.

Community Memorial’s Benton said the county hospital and its network of clinics have provided an effective safety net for the county’s poor. But he took exception to what he sees as a rush to build costly new structures in an era of shrunken public budgets and nationwide change.


“There exists in the city of Ventura more bricks and mortar (in existing clinics and hospitals) than are possibly going to be needed in the future,” he said. But no long-term arrangements to share private facilities have been studied by the county, he said.

He also said the $38-million cost of a new 100,000-square-foot outpatient clinic and parking garage at the medical center is far too high. Memorial recently spent just $16.5 million for a facility three-fourths as large, he said.

In addition, the 70% state funding county officials are counting on for the new clinic is anything but a sure thing, and no funding for such projects is in Gov. Pete Wilson’s next budget, Benton said.

Wessels said his agency could pay the $3.8-million annual payment on new construction out of operating revenue if state reimbursements dry up.

Nor is the county rushing to build, he said. It must submit engineering studies for the new facilities to the state by July 1 to qualify for state funding, he said, but no construction could begin for at least a year after that.

So county supervisors will have the next 18 months to decide whether Clinton’s proposed reforms will have much effect on California’s Medi-Cal system.


Wessels said the Clinton package, even if approved, will have almost no effect on Medi-Cal, since the President’s reforms focus on providing health care to the working poor, not those already covered by Medi-Cal.

The county’s construction plan includes a five-story, $8-million parking garage and three new buildings with 144,000 square feet of space--the $29.5-million outpatient clinic, a $6.8-million, 48-bed mental health hospital, and a $2.4-million coroner’s office and morgue.

Of that $46.7-million package, funding exists for $13.2 million but the rest would have to be financed through the sale of bonds, with a probable 70% reimbursement from the state, Wessels said.