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Judge stops expansion of hospital

Times Staff Writer

A judge Thursday ordered a San Fernando Valley hospital to halt construction on its $180-million expansion until the Los Angeles City Council reconsiders the project and decides whether more environmental review is needed.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Thomas I. McKnew Jr. said Providence Holy Cross Medical Center -- which treated 17 passengers in the Metrolink crash Sept. 12 -- must stop work until the council either approves the project with an eight-vote majority or orders an environmental impact report on the project.

Attorney Ted Franklin, who represents groups challenging the hospital expansion, urged the council to demand the extra environmental review, a process that typically takes at least a year. The judge dropped several hints that the hospital expansion needs more analysis but did not rule on it directly.

If the council reapproves the project, opponents will simply go back to the judge and ask him to require an environmental impact report -- delaying the project even further, Franklin said.

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“It would be just one more mistake in a long chain of mistakes,” said Franklin, who represents Community Advocates for Responsible Expansion, a group made up of unionized healthcare workers and neighborhood activists.

Providence Holy Cross Medical Center started work four months ago on its new hospital tower, which will provide 101 beds in the short term and as many as 35 more in coming years. At least half of those beds will be devoted to emergency room patients, hospital officials said.

A shutdown of the construction project is expected to cost Providence about $50 million over a two-year period, said hospital spokeswoman Patricia Aidem.

“It’s not about the cost in dollars,” said hospital attorney Tim McOsker. “It’s about the cost in human lives if we delay.”

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The expansion is being challenged by residents who live near the Mission Hills hospital and by the Service Employees International Union, which is in a labor dispute with the entity that operates Providence Holy Cross.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s appointees on the city Planning Commission voted last year to approve the hospital project. Months later, the council fell two votes shy of the 10 votes that, under city law, are needed to overturn the commission’s decision.

Critics of the project convinced the judge that only eight votes were needed to reverse the commission’s decision.

Healthcare officials have expressed dismay about the challenge to Providence Holy Cross, which is expanding in a county where 11 emergency rooms have closed since 2002.

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With ambulances regularly being turned away from overcrowded hospitals, any major delay to the Providence Holy Cross expansion is tantamount to murder, said Jim Lott, executive vice president of the Hospital Assn. of Southern California.

“They are contributing to the loss of lives,” he said.

Representatives of the SEIU did not respond to a request for comment.

But Councilman Richard Alarcon, who sided with the union in the hospital fight months ago, voiced outrage over Lott’s comments, saying he should “tell the judge that.”

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Providence paid more than $311,000 over a 12-month period to two lobbying firms that promoted the project at City Hall, according to Ethics Commission records. Over the same period, the SEIU paid $103,000 to groups that fought the project, three-fourths of which went to the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a pro-labor nonprofit.

Alarcon said he has the eight votes to require an environmental impact report when the issue returns to the council. And he argued that even if the expansion is delayed two years, the emergency room at Providence Holy Cross could treat patients and then send them to beds at other hospitals.

“I question that any ambulance would be turned away, and I think it’s very dangerous to make that statement,” he said.

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david.zahniser@latimes.com


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