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UCI Medical Center to open new hospital

On the boulevards surrounding UC Irvine’s new hospital, roadside banners herald “A New Era.”

Administrators have dubbed the seven-story, copper-hued building in Orange the “Tower of Healing.”

Hoping to turn a page on its problem-plagued past, UC Irvine Medical Center this week opens the doors to its new state-of-the-art facility, a milestone for Orange County’s flagship public hospital. The moment is being observed with restrained optimism given the institution’s 15 years of persistent problems, from fertility doctors who stole patients’ eggs and embryos to failures in the liver transplant program that led to more than 30 patient deaths.

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After more than a decade of planning and four years of construction, patients this weekend are being wheeled out of a drab, cramped facility that opened in 1962 as a county hospital.

The building, transferred to the university in 1976, had long frustrated doctors and nurses because it was designed as a bare-bones county hospital, not a research center. It is set to be demolished in 2011.

“We’re really proud to have something that gives us a face that’s different from the way we’ve been viewed,” said Dr. David Hoyt, chairman of surgery. “I really think it’s going to allow people to see us as a place of clinical excellence and as a place where new things come from.”

The airy new facility along the 5 Freeway, which will cost $556 million when all phases are complete, was designed to bring patient care to the forefront. It features mostly private patient rooms (the old ones had three beds each) with sleeping accommodations for guests, quiet rooms with fold-out beds for visiting family and spacious operating rooms with minimally invasive robotic equipment.

The hospital will open with 191 beds and will eventually have room for 236 as it expands over the next several years.

Its hallways boast warm colors and artworks with plants, flowers and trees. Floors are decorated by theme: “Prairie Grass” near the first-floor pharmacy; “Wheat” on the third floor, which houses pathology; and “Savannah on the fifth floor, where the burn intensive care unit is located.

Wall-mounted hand sanitizer dispensers line the hallways, and there are sinks in every room to control infection. Nurses and doctors will don new color-coded uniforms.

It’s all to convey a sense of healing and signal hopes of a fresh start.

“We wanted to give a sense that there’s newness, that things grow and get better,” said Maureen Zehntner, the hospital’s departing chief executive.

And with good reason.

The medical center has weathered a string of high-profile scandals going back to 1995, when it was revealed that fertility doctors had stolen patients’ eggs and embryos and implanted them into other women.

After further problems, including the 1999 revelation that the Willed Body Program was selling parts of cadavers, performing unauthorized autopsies and misappropriating money, the medical center’s troubles resurfaced in 2005 with failures in the university hospital’s liver transplant program that led to more than 30 deaths of patients awaiting organs, even as the university rejected viable ones.

More shortcomings came to light in the hospital’s bone marrow and kidney transplant programs.

But even as the hospital makes its debut with hopes of a clean slate, not everything is rosy.

The medical center was placed under state supervision last year over safety concerns about shoddy record-keeping in its anesthesiology department, a problem that administrators say has been fixed with a new electronic monitoring system. Federal regulators reported more deficiencies in December, and will be making an unannounced visit to make sure corrections were made.

There has also been a lack of steady leadership, with two top administrators leaving. Zehntner retired as chief executive Friday, and Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs David Bailey, one of two administrators hired to increase oversight in response to the liver scandal, is retiring in July.

The new facility is opening at a time of a fiscal crisis in which half of the nation’s hospitals are running losses. As people lose their jobs in the weak economy, the uninsured are overwhelming medical centers like UCI’s, where much of Orange County’s poor go to seek medical help.

Although the UCI hospital has been in the black in recent months, its financial position is precarious.

It lost money in December, for instance, and officials said that in coming years they will have to closely monitor staffing levels and make tough decisions about whether to go ahead with technology improvements and building projects as they look to reduce operating costs.

“We’re all looking at a very difficult time coming ahead,” UCI Chancellor Michael Drake said.

At the same time, Drake, who was hired by the university in 2005 just months before the liver scandal broke and remembers breaking ground on the hospital at one of his first public events, said the medical center has made progress over the last several years in management and safety.

“I’m extremely pleased with the dramatically increased level of transparency that we’ve made at many levels of our operation,” Drake said.

At the helm of the new hospital on an interim basis is Terry Belmont, former chief executive of Long Beach Memorial Medical Center and Miller Children’s Hospital.

His hope is that the new building will help UCI escape past stigmas and focus on its hallmarks, like its Cancer Center, the county’s only regional burn center and its Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

“This is one more step that reaffirms to the community that we are a hospital for the entire county,” he said. The facility took more than a decade of planning and just over three years to build, and is being paid for mostly through $235 million in state public works bonds and $202 million in debt issued by the university as hospital revenue bonds, which the hospital will pay off over 40 years. Other funding includes $33 million contributed by donors. The fundraising goal is $50 million.

“Every time we have a new hospital opening beds, we’re screaming, ‘Hooray,’ ” said James Strebig, president of the Orange County Medical Assn., who also teaches medical students at UCI and UCLA. “I think it’s going to be successful and serve the population of Orange County very well.”

And while Strebig acknowledges that UCI’s past problems could be a liability, he hopes they don’t prove to be lasting.

“Most institutions have their bad apples, and UCI has had its fair share,” he said. “I hope the last ones have been rooted out of the barrel.”

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tony.barboza@latimes.com


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