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Landmark East L.A. Hospital Is Closed by Bankruptcy Judge

Times Staff Writers

A federal bankruptcy judge Friday ordered the closure of Elastar Community Hospital in East Los Angeles despite last-minute pleas by politicians and employees of the 80-year-old landmark that has long served Latino immigrants.

The loss of Elastar is expected to be another blow to the emergency healthcare system in Los Angeles County. The hospital’s emergency room treated about 13,000 patients annually, and now those patients must go to other hospitals where long delays for emergency care are common.

Elastar is the third hospital with an emergency room to close in the county this year, joining Santa Teresita in Duarte and Century City Hospital in West Los Angeles. “We cannot stand any more closures in an emergency system capacity in Los Angeles -- this system is on the brink of absolute chaos,” said Jim Lott, the executive vice president of the Hospital Assn. of Southern California. “Eventually, people are going to start to die. That’s basically what it amounts to.”

Officials said their biggest fear is that the hospital closures will overwhelm resources at the remaining emergency rooms, extending delays that already can last several hours and adding a greater financial burden to neighboring hospitals.

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“It’s not the travel time to the next hospital that is going to be difficult, it’s going to be the waiting time to get the patient off the gurney,” said Carol Meyer, director of the Los Angeles County Emergency Medical Services Agency.

Nearly all of Elastar’s patients were Latino, according to hospital officials, who said that illegal immigrants in particular felt safe coming there. Although hospitals must treat anyone who walks into their emergency rooms regardless of citizenship, officials said that some undocumented workers shun the healthcare system for fear of encountering immigration officials.

Dozens of employees stood shoulder to shoulder in the hospital’s administrative wing Friday morning, listening on a speakerphone to a conference call from U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Santa Ana. The hospital has been in the court since the fall, when its owner filed for bankruptcy.

“I wish there was another outcome, but I just don’t see it,” said Judge John Ryan, who added that the hospital’s debt was too high to overcome.

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As Ryan spoke, many employees began weeping. By noon, some were wheeling their belongings out of the building on carts, and an ambulance pulled up to Elastar to get one of the last 18 remaining patients, who was being transferred to another facility.

The hospital was a virtual ghost town. The operating room was dark and many nurses stations were empty. One lone patient -- a homeless man with a head injury -- was in Elastar’s 12-bed intensive-care unit. A nurse was trying to find a county hospital to accept him.

Elastar was founded in 1924 as Santa Marta Hospital, a facility that specialized in maternity cases. By the 1970s, the hospital had expanded into a full-service hospital with a new building on North Humphreys Avenue in the heart of East Los Angeles.

It catered mainly to the Latino families who lived in modest bungalows nearby and became home to some Latino doctors and nurses who wanted to work in the neighborhood where they grew up.

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“I liked working here because the people were humble and they were grateful,” said Ruth Zamoras, 61, who had worked at the hospital since 1961.

Until 2002, the hospital was run by a religious order, the Carondelet Sisters. Losing money, the group sold it to two healthcare professionals. But financial problems continued.

“It was extremely difficult trying to turn the hospital around, but we were making progress,” said Richard Yardling, one of the co-owners. “But in the first four months of this year the nursing staff shortage cost us over $1 million; -- that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

On Jan. 1, a new state law took effect that required hospitals to beef up their nursing staffs to lower the ratio of nurses to patients. The other problem, hospital officials said, is that about one-third of the hospital’s patients had no health insurance and that many more were recipients of Medicare or Medicaid. That, they said, made it difficult to recoup the hospital’s costs to treat them.

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Elastar filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last fall in order to rearrange the hospital’s finances and debt. But it didn’t work.

On Monday, the hospital was placed under Chapter 7 protection, which allows for a court-appointed trustee to begin liquidating its assets. Brad Krasnoff, the trustee, said the hospital has more than $10 million in debt and that it couldn’t pay its roughly 400 employees, who are already out three weeks’ pay.

“This is going to be a disaster for the community,” said Lisa Chavez, the hospital’s controller. “Last night we had two expecting moms try to walk in to deliver babies and we turned them away. A few weeks ago, I was walking out one night and there was a family honking the horn of their car -- their son was in there. He had been shot.”

Los Angeles City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa attended the conference call. He later said: “This is a real tragedy for 400 employees. There are few ERs in the area. The hospital has been a haven for local residents who wanted the personal treatment that comes with going to a community hospital.”

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Many of those patients will now go to two other nearby hospitals, White Memorial in Boyle Heights or East Los Angeles Doctors Hospital.

Araceli Lonergan, the chief executive of Doctors Hospital, said that her hospital already sees about 15,000 patients in its emergency room each year and that number will probably double with the loss of Elastar.

She said that there has already been an increase in the number of patients taken by paramedics to Doctors Hospital since Elastar’s emergency room was closed Monday.

“The community is not totally aware of what’s happened yet,” she said.

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Employees say that the hospital’s finances are in far better shape than the court-appointed trustee concluded. Dr. Graciela Colle-Almaguer, who has seen patients at the hospital since 1973, said that she was part of a group of doctors who last week offered to purchase the hospital for $11 million -- a proposal she said was rejected.

Krasnoff disputed that claim. “We have no offers,” he said.

His attorney, Michael Weiss, said an appraiser will soon begin looking at the hospital’s equipment, followed by real estate appraisals.

Weiss also said that offers to buy the hospital will still be entertained.

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As employees and community members protested outside the hospital Friday, all was quiet in the hospital’s maternity ward, where 26-year-old Rosa Chavez, a recent immigrant from Guatemala, was propped up in bed.

She had walked into the hospital shortly after noon on Wednesday. The hospital admitted her and she gave birth to a son, Diego Emilio, within 90 minutes. He was her fourth child, but first to be born in a hospital.

On Friday, Chavez was being tended to by Zamoras.

Zamoras said: “I was here for the first baby born in the new hospital building in 1972 and now I was here for the last.”

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