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Hospital’s suit could hamper L.A. County’s effort to expand trauma network

 Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center

A homeless man sleeps outside Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, one of 14 trauma centers in Los Angeles County. 

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

For the first time in several years, Los Angeles County officials are taking ambitious steps to expand the region’s network of hospital trauma centers. But that plan could soon hit a roadblock.

The county pays for 14 of the specialized emergency rooms, which treat only the most serious injuries, with help from a voter-approved parcel tax known as Measure B. The tax generates about $250 million a year, and officials recently pledged some of that revenue to develop a new, long-awaited trauma center in Pomona.

On Tuesday, however, administrators from Antelope Valley Hospital in Lancaster sued the county, alleging that their trauma center hasn’t received its fair share of tax measure funding.

“Our hospital has been all but forgotten by the county,” said Dr. Pavel Petrik, medical director for the hospital trauma program.

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In a complaint filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, administrators allege that the $1 million they receive each year is disproportionately low. The public medical center, which treats 900 to 1,000 trauma patients a year, wants more than $100 million in back payments from the county as well as more than $10 million each year from now on.

The hospital’s action comes after a state audit last year criticized Los Angeles County administrators for failing to provide sufficient oversight of Measure B funds.

Auditors concluded that more than 76% of the $255 million generated by the tax goes to three county-run public hospitals, while 16% goes to 12 non-county-operated trauma centers. County officials set funding levels several years ago and didn’t maintain an oversight committee, the audit found, so administrators couldn’t prove that the county was using the money in the most appropriate manner.

County spokesman Dave Sommers said Tuesday that officials had no comment on the pending litigation.

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When the state audit was released last year, county officials said they believed that they had used the money wisely by adding two new private trauma centers to the network since the measure passed in 2002. Despite Antelope Valley administrators’ claims about disproportionate payments, Measure B did not specify how money should be allocated to each hospital, or whether it should be in proportion to the number of patients treated.

County officials are, however, currently taking a second look at the way Measure B funding is distributed.

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In a recent interview, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said there’s “discomfort, distress” about Measure B funds’ distribution among other hospital administrators, not just Antelope Valley’s. “They’re not the only ones,” he said.

Dr. Christina Ghaly, Los Angeles County director of healthcare integration, said hospitals in general need less help these days treating uninsured patients because there are fewer of them after the expansion of insurance under the Affordable Care Act. “The uninsured claims have just plummeted,” she said.

Though an official decision hasn’t been made by the Board of Supervisors, county health staff are still proposing funding amounts that wouldn’t exceed $40 million for the non-county hospitals. Though some individual hospitals might get more money than they have been receiving, they will also all have to share with Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center when it opens.

Ridley-Thomas said he isn’t sure whether the hospitals’ concerns will be assuaged with the new funding allocations, and that it really “depends on how they’re reworked.” He said that if the board wants to consider further trauma expansion, it may need to put yet another tax measure before voters.

Antelope Valley attorney Patrick McNicholas said there’s no reason the non-county hospital money should be limited to $40 million, or that adding the Pomona hospital should mean less for everyone else. The county, he said, is generating hundreds of millions of dollars each year, and $40 million is an artificial constraint.

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“They’re not properly framing the issue,” he said. “There are more than enough funds to properly fund trauma centers.”

soumya.karlamangla@latimes.com

Follow @skarlamangla on Twitter for more L.A. health news.

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