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Campaign Targets Bid to Expand Hospital : Ventura: In a letter to employees, administrators at private Community Memorial try to rally support against new wing for nearby public facility.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After calling for an easing of tensions three weeks ago, a private Ventura hospital has enlisted its workers to mount an aggressive grass-roots campaign to kill a planned $30-million wing at the county hospital three blocks away.

Administrators at private Community Memorial Hospital have asked employees to rally friends and neighbors against renovation and expansion of Ventura County Medical Center.

A letter mailed to about 800 Community Memorial employees last week also asks workers to tell the County Board of Supervisors that the new wing would waste taxpayers’ money while positioning the county to compete for private patients, not just treat the poor.

The new 105,000-square-foot wing could siphon off patients from Community Memorial and eventually lead to the closing of one of Ventura’s two hospitals, says a fact sheet mailed to workers by Community’s executive director, Michael D. Bakst.

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“If the county proceeds with their expansion plans, the supply of beds and facilities will increase, and frankly, someone will go out of business,” according to Bakst’s sheet.

County officials said Monday that they see errors in Bakst’s fact sheet, especially a suggestion that the new outpatient wing would provide overnight hospital beds. It would not, they said.

They also noted what they see as a contradiction between Community Memorial’s public call for calm discussion between the two hospitals on health care needs--a proposal revealed in newspaper ads--and the hospital’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering.

“This certainly shades the credibility of their public offer to cooperate,” said Phillipp K. Wessels, director of the county’s Health Care Agency.

“It’s the exact opposite of what they offered in their paid advertisement,” Wessels said. “I think they’re trying to protect their own interests. I don’t think they care about the best needs of the county overall.”

County officials argue that they need to replace a hodgepodge of dilapidated clinics and must act now or miss a strong chance at 70% state reimbursement. They also maintain that they have no plans to compete for private patients.

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But county supervisors, who approved the hospital wing in concept in 1993, have responded to a spate of new questions on the project by agreeing to clear the air at a hearing, tentatively scheduled April 19.

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Bakst said there are plenty of unanswered questions that supervisors need to address. He said his employee letter is a non-issue meant to distract attention from whether the county really needs to spend $30 million on a new wing and $8 million more on a medical center parking garage.

“To go off on a tangent about what I wrote to my employees is obscuring the real issue, which is the county’s own lack of responsiveness to questions that we have raised,” Bakst said.

He said the new wing is not needed and is far too costly for its size. A Community Memorial expansion three-fourths the size cost only $16.5 million, he said. The county’s new wing could also weaken the community’s health-care system by financially undermining Community Memorial, he said.

Bakst emphasized that the county has not studied alternatives to the costly project, such as leasing space in existing medical buildings or perhaps even at Community Hospital. He also challenged Wessels’ comments on Bakst’s letter to employees.

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“It’s none of his business,” Bakst said. “I think it’s audacious and inappropriate for any aspect of county government to try and question me about what I communicate with my employees.”

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Supervisor Susan K. Lacey, whose district includes Ventura, requested a copy of Community Memorial’s fact sheet Monday morning, but Bakst said he turned down the request.

“I declined,” he said. “We are not an arm of county government.”

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Bakst said he sees nothing inconsistent with rallying his employees while calling for the hospitals to jointly hire a nationally known consultant to define local health care needs and recommend how they can best be met.

“We will continue to oppose this building as a waste of taxpayers’ money,” Bakst said. But if the consultant were to find the wing is needed, he said he would drop his opposition.


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