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Area Hospital to Reopen in 2006

Times Staff Writer

Shuttered Santa Paula Memorial Hospital, the emergency lifeline for 50,000 residents of the Santa Clara River Valley, is set to reopen in January, county government officials said Monday.

Community leaders lauded the announcement, saying the sooner the hospital reopens for business the better. The 49-bed facility closed in December 2003 after mounting debt forced it into bankruptcy.

Since then, residents of Santa Paula and Fillmore have had to travel to Ventura for emergency room services, an extra 20 minutes that can mean the difference between life and death, officials said.

“It’s so critical to have a hospital 10 to 15 minutes away from our community,” Fillmore Mayor Ernie Villegas said. “We are really dependent on the hospital.”

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The Ventura County Board of Supervisors agreed to purchase the property and reopen it as an arm of Ventura County Medical Center, the public healthcare safety net.

Ownership officially transferred Monday, said board Chairwoman Kathy Long, who has worked closely with local officials and state regulators to revive the facility. The hospital will complement the network of public health clinics and hospital beds already operated by county health officials, she said.

Supervisors have said the hospital’s mandate is to break even financially so it will not become a burden to the county general budget. As a public hospital, it qualifies for premium government payments, officials have said.

“We get 49 beds added to our system,” Long said after signing escrow papers. “Those beds help support our bottom line and we help serve 50,000 residents.”

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County Health Care Agency chief Pierre Durand said his staff members will spend the next three months rehabilitating the one-story hospital from top to bottom. The full-service hospital plans to hire 145 employees. That number could include many who lost their jobs when the hospital closed.

Additional agreements with doctor and insurance groups are already underway, Durand said. The county bought the 11.5-acre hilltop property for $2.75 million.

“It’s going to be a beautiful, charming little hospital on the hill,” he said.

Sam Edwards, retired administrator for Ventura County Medical Center, will oversee the hospital’s reopening. The facility has already received initial go-aheads from state and federal regulators to reopen, though final approvals will come later, Edwards said.

Durand predicted it will take 18 months for the hospital to fully recapture its patient base. Since the closure, patients have scattered to surrounding hospitals for surgeries and births.

When fully operational, the hospital expects to deliver between 600 and 800 babies a year, Durand said. The Santa Clara River Valley also has a large Medicare population that will probably choose Santa Paula Memorial for treatment, he said.

That market, he projected, could bring $20 million annually to the hospital.

Long said she does not expect a flare-up in the “hospital wars” between Ventura County Medical Center and privately operated Community Memorial Hospital over private-pay patients. The two hospitals occupy the same street near downtown Ventura.

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Community Memorial had already passed on a chance to buy Santa Paula Memorial, she said.

“They shouldn’t turn around now and say they have an interest in those patients,” she said.


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