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Lips all tight on fate of hospital

Laguna Beach may be on the verge of losing its hospital, but those in the know aren’t talking.

The agenda for a closed City Council meeting Friday has spurred speculation that all or part of Adventist Health’s hospital property in Laguna Beach is for sale.

City officials declined to comment about the closed door meeting, the purpose of which was to discuss possible litigation and provide direction to city staff regarding real estate negotiations for three addresses connected to South Coast Medical Center, the city’s hospital for about 50 years.

“We have sworn ourselves to silence because we will be holding another closed session on it,” Councilman Kelly Boyd said.

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Requests to the city for pertinent documents also were denied.

“I don’t have any public documents that I can release at this time, and I can’t give you any private documents,” City Manager Ken Frank said.

Medical Center Chief Executive Bruce Christian did not return telephone calls.

Mayor Pro Tem Cheryl Kinsman’s hasty return from a family vacation to attend the council’s closed session would indicate the gravity of the situation.

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Kinsman and Mayor Jane Egly serve as the council’s hospital sub-committee, both devoted to keeping the medical center open in Laguna.

With their support, the council voted in January to appropriate $112,000 to reimburse the hospital for the purchase of emergency room equipment and $68,000 to lease peripheral parking spaces this summer.

Kinsman has declined to comment on the closed session, as did Councilwoman Elizabeth Pearson. Pearson is the executive director of the hospital’s fundraising foundation and did not attend the council’s closed session.

A news release issued Wednesday in response to calls to Adventist corporate headquarters raised more questions than it answered.

The brief release in its entirety read “Adventist Health continues to assess its involvement in the Orange County market and the operations of South Coast Medical Center. The current healthcare environment challenges all providers statewide, and this hospital is no exception. The Adventist Health board of directors is expected to meet in September to further discuss the operations and examine all available options.

“Recognizing the importance of the hospital to the community, SCMC continues to maintain its current level of services and focus on delivering quality patient care.”

The medical center owns the hospital and an undeveloped lot on Sunset Avenue, which hospital officials had discussed developing as an assisted living project, as a revenue source.

Under the auspices of former Executive Director Joe Orsak, the South Coast Medical Center Foundation purchased the office building and the parking lot in front of the hospital.

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The not-for-profit hospital’s shaky financial position is no secret. Christian told the council in June 2007 that the hospital was on the mend, but large amounts of money were needed to keep it healthy.

In April of this year, Christian announced that the under-used maternity center would be closed, a move that would free up about $1 million a year for services more needed in an aging community.

Now the community, which raised funds to build the hospital, must wait to see what steps can or will be taken to keep it open.


BARBARA DIAMOND can be reached at (949) 494-4321 or coastlinepilot@latimes.com.


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