Scores of hospital employees and community activists turned out Wednesday night to voice concerns about the closure of yet another Los Angeles County emergency room, this time at Memorial hospital in Inglewood.
What many of them didn’t realize was that their testimony had no chance of forcing the emergency room to remain open.
Hearings such as the one at Inglewood’s Faithful Central Bible Church, attended by about 150 people, are essentially venting sessions. The county’s Emergency Medical Services Commission is required by state law to hold a hearing but has no power to intervene, just as it had no way to stop the previous nine emergency room closures over the last five years.
Solyn Roberts, who prepares patients for surgery at the hospital formerly known as Daniel Freeman Memorial, expressed surprise when the commissioners repeatedly stated that they could not make the hospital’s owner, Centinela Freeman HealthSystem, rescind its decision to close Memorial’s ER by mid-December.
“I don’t know why we came,” she said. “It seems like the government should do something.”
Saying that the hospital is hemorrhaging money, the health system plans to consolidate emergency care at another hospital it owns, Centinela, which is about 1 1/2 miles from Memorial. Together, the two emergency rooms treated more than 79,000 patients last year.
The state, not the county, licenses and regulates hospital emergency rooms. It calls for hospitals to give 90 days’ notice before closing an ER, and requires the emergency services commission to hold a public hearing and submit an evaluation of the closure’s effect on the community.
“The idea was to try to get the public to help and analyze and give information to the hospital, hoping that there could be some influence,” said Carol Meyer, director of Los Angeles County’s Emergency Medical Services Agency. “Keep in mind that most of [the hospitals in the county] are privately owned, and just like any other business, there’s no public control over a private business.”
Health system President and Chief Executive Michael A. Rembis said 60% of the patients who use Memorial’s emergency room had ailments such as earaches and respiratory infections that didn’t require emergency treatment. The health system plans to open urgent care centers at both hospitals to free the remaining emergency room at Centinela for true emergencies.
“We’re not leaving this community,” Rembis said. “We’re not walking away from our responsibility for emergency care.”
Most speakers expressed skepticism.
“The closure of this facility is going to have an instant, significant impact,” said Richard Elliott, president of the California Fire Chiefs Assn. “What happens when something along the lines of Hurricane Katrina or 9/11 or another Northridge earthquake happens, and we don’t have the capacity?”
Even with urgent care centers, speakers and commissioners alike predicted that seriously ill patients would overwhelm Centinela.
“As we all know, the urgent care center doesn’t have to treat the uninsured and the underinsured,” Inglewood Mayor Roosevelt Dorn said. “And they’re not going to.”
Commissioners seemed as frustrated as everyone else attending Wednesday’s hearing.
As they have done every time the issue has come before them in the last five years, the commissioners unanimously agreed to send a report to the state Department of Health Services that “the closure will have an adverse effect on the emergency medical system and the community.”