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Hospital Offers Apology for Denial of Epidural

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Facing a dozen blinking television cameras and a host of reporters, officials at Northridge Hospital Medical Center apologized on Thursday to a Medi-Cal patient who was denied epidural anesthesia while giving birth to her child there last summer.

One by one, the hospital’s president, chief of staff, head of obstetrics and others expressed regret that Ozzie Chavez, a Canoga Park mother of five, was refused an epidural block because she could not pay cash up front to the anesthesiologist.

“We sincerely regret the experience this individual patient had,” said Mary Cirricione, director of women’s and children’s services at the hospital. “We have taken steps to ensure that this will never again happen at Northridge Hospital.”

But the attempt at smoothing the waters over the case may have increased the facility’s problems with a state health agency.

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Ken August, spokesman for the California Department of Health Services, ridiculed the hospital’s contention that anesthesiologists there demanded advance payment for epidurals--a form of spinal block used frequently in childbirth--because Medi-Cal did not cover them.

He also said the hospital was “stretching the truth” when it claimed that Chavez was the only woman to be denied an epidural at the hospital.

“Are they still asserting that it’s a non-covered benefit, after all [The Times] has written and all they’ve been through and all we’ve been through?” August said. “It’s just plain wrong. I’m incredulous.”

In a news release, the hospital said that anesthesiologists there demanded advance payment for epidurals “because Medi-Cal considered epidural anesthesia a non-covered service.”

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At a news conference, Northridge Hospital President Roger Seaver said the state’s policy on whether epidurals were covered by Medi-Cal was “ambiguous.”

“It has never been ambiguous,” said August, whose department has repeatedly said that epidurals are covered for all beneficiaries upon request, unless there is a medical reason not to use one. “The regulations have not changed.”

He also said that it was disingenuous to claim that Chavez was the only woman denied an epidural at Northridge, because the practical result of a policy requiring advance payment is that those women who do not have the ability to pay do not receive the treatment.

“To tell women in advance that this service is not available unless they make some sort of payment, and then to say that because the women therefore did not ask that there was no denial, is ridiculous,” August said. “Talk about stretching the truth.”

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