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Deal May Keep Downey ER From Closing

Times Staff Writer

Nearly two months after Downey Regional Medical Center announced that it might close its emergency room because of the rising costs of caring for uninsured patients, hospital officials said Wednesday that they might keep the doors open after all.

The private nonprofit facility has been losing money -- especially since its agreement with Medi-Cal, the government health program for the poor, ended more than a year ago.

But last week, hospital officials reached an oral agreement with Medi-Cal to ease the financial burden on its emergency room by being reimbursed at a rate greater than their prior contract provided.

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The deal, which would become effective Nov. 3, could save up to $1 million annually, said Rob Fuller, Downey Regional’s chief operating officer.

The hospital predicted continued financial losses through its ER, but not as much.

Last year, the emergency room lost from $7 million to $11 million treating 46,307 patients. Over the last five years, the hospital has exhausted a surplus of $60 million, half of which went to treat the uninsured.

In addition to Medi-Cal dollars, officials hope to receive funding for “distressed hospitals” from the state and federal governments, Fuller said. It was unclear how much it would be or when that money would become available.

Hospital officials say they also are trying to work out an agreement with local paramedics so that fewer emergency patients from outside the community are diverted to Downey. The 199-bed center is a prime destination for paramedics because of its proximity to the Santa Ana, San Gabriel River and Century freeways.

“I think we’re headed in the right direction,” Fuller said.

The news was welcomed by health officials in a county that has lost nine county emergency rooms -- serving about 150,000 patients annually -- since 2003.

“The impact of them closing would be the biggest,” said Carol Meyer, Los Angeles County’s head of emergency services, referring to Downey’s ER.

However, she added, “this is probably a Band-Aid. I don’t think the system is fixed. It’s still very vulnerable.”

The county faces a major crisis in its healthcare system because of uninsured patients. The Department of Health Services faces a deficit of nearly $1 billion three years from now.

A recent study commissioned by the Hospital Assn. of Southern California found that the number of uninsured patients seeking services at private ERs had risen by a third in the last five years.

The county has about 2.25 million uninsured residents, many of them working for employers that do not offer health plans.

About 20% of the uninsured are illegal immigrants, according to one estimate.

Downey Regional had solicited financial support from the county Board of Supervisors last month but was rejected. Officials said it would set a precedent for other hospitals, especially private facilities.


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