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State Refuses to Renew Hospital’s Medi-Cal Contract

TIMES STAFF WRITER

State health officials have refused to renew a lucrative Medi-Cal funding agreement with Northridge Hospital Medical Center, citing the hospital’s practice of denying epidural anesthesia to poor women who were in labor unless they could pay cash in advance.

The California Medical Assistance Commission delayed approval of the facility’s eligibility for federal funds designed to augment the budgets of hospitals that take Medi-Cal and Medicaid, The Times has learned. The commission, meeting in closed session Tuesday, also asked its staff to consider other sanctions against the hospital.

“We want to send a very clear message that [denying women epidurals if theycannot pay] is a violation of the contract,” said former state Assemblyman Richard Katz, a member of the commission. “Any hospital engaging in this will not get supplemental money.”

Katz and others at the commission said the agency acted in response to allegations reported in The Times that women who were on Medi-Cal were denied epidurals at the hospital unless they paid cash in advance.

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Officials at Northridge Hospital Medical Center could not be reached for comment.

This week, in an investigation that was also prompted by the report, the California Department of Health Services referred the names of three doctors who practice at the hospital to regulators in charge of policing physicians.

And on June 18, the department accused the hospital of violating six health care regulations, including failure to provide care without regard to a patient’s ability to pay.

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Candis Cohen, spokeswoman for the Medical Board of California, which regulates doctors, said the agency is looking into questions about whether doctors acted improperly at the hospital. She would not identify the three doctors who had been referred by state health officials.

Asking for money from a Medi-Cal recipient for a medical procedure that the agency covers violates the contract that the hospital signed with the state in order to be allowed to accept the recipients as patients, said Byron Chell, executive director of the commission. Refusing treatment for financial reasons also violates the contract, he said.

The commission would not release the amount of funds that would have gone to Northridge Hospital Medical Center, saying that such information is privileged for four years after the fiscal year in which the money is distributed.

But Chell said that the total pot of $400 million in the supplemental funds will be distributed to just 66 hospitals (65 if Northridge is not reinstated) in the fiscal year beginning July 1.

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