Inglewood Hospital to Disband ER

Times Staff Writer

Centinela Freeman HealthSystem announced Tuesday that it will close the emergency room at Memorial hospital in Inglewood, a move that critics warn would further strain Los Angeles County’s frail emergency care system.

Beginning in November, patients would be shifted to the facility’s sister campus, Centinela hospital, about 1 1/2 miles away, as part of a consolidation plan aimed at reducing costs. To increase access to care, plans also call for a 24-hour urgent care clinic to open at Memorial and another at Centinela hospital.

Memorial, formerly known as Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital, treated about 38,000 patients in its emergency room last year.


But health system President and Chief Executive Michael A. Rembis said that more than 60% of those patients had non-emergency conditions -- such as earaches, respiratory infections or other minor ailments. In a community with a high number of uninsured people, that places a huge burden on the hospital, Rembis said.

“Because people don’t have access to their own primary-care physician, they’re using our emergency room,” said Rembis, whose health system is losing $30 million a year. “We need to find a better way to provide care.”

In Los Angeles County, the average emergency room visit costs $380, while an urgent care visit costs about $50, according to the Hospital Assn. of Southern California. Rembis said the health system would also be working with low-cost clinics to handle those patients who could not pay for urgent care.

But some critics said the closure -- the 10th in the county in the last five years -- would further jeopardize emergency care in one of the city’s most densely populated areas.

“They’re closing their doors and saying we’re not going to see the uninsured,” said Lark Galloway-Gilliam, director of the Community Health Council, a health advocacy organization in South Los Angeles.

Carol Meyer, director of Los Angeles County’s Emergency Medical Services Agency, said she is concerned that Centinela’s emergency room will be overwhelmed.

She said that the public has been taught to go to the emergency room if they have a problem, particularly after hours, and retraining them will be a difficult task.

“We’ve programmed the public,” Meyer said. “We have created our own monster.”

Data submitted by Memorial to the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development showed that Memorial treated 16,000 patients last year that it characterized as “severe,” representing about 42% of all emergency room patients.

Details on emergency room visits at Centinela are not yet available on the agency’s website.

But Centinela Freeman said it hired the Camden Group, a consulting firm, to analyze its options and the potential effect of closing the Memorial emergency room.

The study found that two-thirds of the emergency room patients at Memorial and Centinela were treated for non-emergency and non-life-threatening conditions, the system said.

By law, emergency room patients must be screened and stabilized, regardless of their ability to pay.

For this reason, the Memorial closure is expected to increase the burden on the county’s remaining 78 emergency rooms.

At the same time, the health system’s decision comes as several local hospitals have closed emergency rooms because of the large number of uninsured patients, officials said.

Jim Lott, vice president of the Hospital Assn. of Southern California, said the demand for emergency room services in Los Angeles County has risen 27% in the last decade, while emergency room capacity dropped by 10%.

So the county’s hospitals must find another way to channel non-emergency, uninsured patients away from emergency rooms, said Lott, who praised Centinela Freeman for “leading the way.”

Barbara Lewis, vice president of the Service Employees International Union, representing 1,500 healthcare workers at Centinela Freeman, said urgent care clinics are needed in Inglewood. But she said that to make them profitable will require changing the way people use emergency rooms.

“That’s going to take a monumental effort,” she said.

Meanwhile, the union has scheduled a town hall meeting Thursday with residents and community leaders to discuss the effect of the emergency room closure. The meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the First Church of God, 9550 S. Crenshaw Blvd., in Inglewood.

Times staff writer Charles Ornstein contributed to this report.