Antelope Valley residents raised their voices in protest last year when the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors threatened to close High Desert Hospital, a county facility in Lancaster that serves the valley’s indigent and poor. We weren’t convinced that the solution to budget woes was to jeopardize the welfare of the “have nots” when the county has a bloated bureaucracy and a track record of honoring those who “have.”
But High Desert Hospital’s battle is last year’s news. Today’s battle affects not only the poor and indigent but also those of us who arrogantly thought we were safe with our private health insurance cards. Palmdale, one of America’s fastest-growing cities, has the distinction of being the only California community of more than 100,000 people without a full-service hospital.
On March 15, Palmdale’s only hospital closed after its parent corporation claimed that it was taking a financial beating. Paracelsus Corp. said an increase in nonpaying emergency room patients and other financial issues made Desert Palms Community Hospital a losing proposition. But there are those who wonder why Paracelsus strode boldly into town and initially agreed to take over a hospital already in the red, desperately in need of capital and under-utilized by a community except in emergencies. Why would a corporation take on a white elephant when it already owned a hospital 20 minutes down the road? Perhaps the writing was on the wall and our political leaders were too blind to read it. Some of us believed from the beginning that we were witnessing the dismantling of a hospital to protect an existing investment. A farfetched possibility? Not really, when you consider that, according to Public Citizen Health Research Group, 447 community hospitals--one out of every 12 in the nation--were involved in merger activity in 1995.
In Palmdale, Paracelsus pulled up anchor, shipped workers off to the unemployment office and retreated down the road to Lancaster where Paracelsus owned another hospital. But the absence of a hospital doesn’t affect just Palmdale. Residents of such outlying communities as Littlerock, Pearblossom, Lake Elizabeth, Llano and Sun Valley are equally at risk in emergencies.
And those who thought an insurance card would keep them from having to participate in assembly-line medicine have received a rude awakening. Over the last several weeks, I’ve read stories, spoken to Palmdale residents and witnessed first-hand long lines with waiting times of five to eight hours at Lancaster emergency rooms. We’re learning what it means to take a number and practice great patience and humility. Frustration gives way to fear, however, when we envision possible loss of life in an emergency because of the additional travel time.
Reaction by local and county political figures has been sluggish at best. Newspapers are full of information about tax measures such as the $319-million L.A. County Park, Beach and Recreation Act of 1996, which, if passed by voters in November, will earmark $21.1 million for northern L.A. County. Although more parks, swimming pools, soccer fields and general recreation programs sound grand, having a hospital and emergency room first represent the type of sane thinking this community needs to witness. Instead of thinking about $800 steel benches for downtown revitalization, competition with Lancaster (which has two hospitals), or an additional courthouse facility, Palmdale officials should think hospital, think emergency room, think of basics first and then the added attractions.
Do we wait for a certain number of mishaps and deaths as a benchmark, or do we hold our political leaders accountable now? A politician actually producing is a scary concept, but it’s better than sitting back and hoping, wishing and praying that a hospital and emergency room will materialize. Soccer fields and recreation projects allow for great photo opportunities with lots of healthy kids milling around. But somewhere along the line, photo opportunities have to be shelved in lieu of life-and-death demands.