Verdugo Hills physicians ask officials to wait on merger

With Verdugo Hills Hospital executives considering a merger with a larger healthcare provider, some physicians at the facility say the hospital would serve area residents best by staying independent.

Michael Klein, an internist at Verdugo Hills, said more than 120 physicians attended a March 20 meeting to hear Verdugo Hills President and Chief Executive Leonard Labella address a possible merger or sale. Klein, who said he has been affiliated with the hospital for 40 years, said it was the largest crowd of doctors he had seen at the quarterly meetings hosted by administrators.

Klein said most of the physicians were not happy to hear that USC Health Sciences or another large healthcare provider might acquire the hospital.

Hospital officials have characterized the discussions as involving a merger or affiliation. While they have not disclosed the names of suitors, doctors and others confirm that the two providers specifically mentioned have been Glendale Adventist Medical Center and USC Health Sciences.

“We said hold on, we haven't seen anything in writing; are they going to curtail our services? Are they going to take all our patients downtown?” Klein said. “I mean, I went to USC, I'm a USC grad, and I send a lot of people down there for services we don't have at smaller hospitals … but how's it going to affect our private practices?”

Klein and other doctors say they believe a decision on the deal could be made as soon as June.

“What we were told last Tuesday is that they're going to continue to move forward on this,” he said. “The medical staff is very concerned about it, and we're asking them to take more time.”

Labella issued a statement Wednesday saying any assertion that the hospital would take steps that would compromise the care of patients is “unfounded, self-serving and speculative.”

Oncologist Boris Bagdasarian, who is affiliated with Verdugo Hills and is the chairman of internal medicine at Glendale Adventist, said he was concerned that USC could end up curtailing services at Verdugo Hills.

“My understanding is it's going to be a feeder hospital,” Bagdasarian said. “It was pretty much discussed by the CEO of the hospital in his introduction. It was our understanding that a lot of the tertiary care stuff is going to be taking place at their main hospital.”

Bagdasarian said that while USC Health Sciences does have an excellent reputation, shifting some services away from the foothills would be a hardship for locals.

“If they preserve it and they maintain in the community, that's wonderful; but for a lot of patients, I think going into East L.A. is not in their best interests,” he said.

A spokeswoman for USC Health Services declined to comment.

Klein said a merger or sale might mean cutting loose contracted doctors. The hospital currently employs emergency room doctors, anesthesiologists and pathologists on contracts, he said.

“If a university hospital came in, they're not going to have two sets of contracted people … these guys now in their 50s and 60s now might be out of a job and have to relocate,” Klein said.

Obstetrician Steve Hartford, Verdugo Hills Hospital's current chief of staff and a member of the hospital's board, said the hospital had yet to make a decision and may not be sold at all.

“Staying independent is still in the picture,” Hartford said. “Whether or not something will take place hasn't really been decided yet.”

In his statement, Labella said Verdugo Hills is known for clinical excellence and quality service to patients.

“Our hospital is engaged at this time in reviewing all options on how best to preserve these qualities and characteristics that define our hospital — and to ensure that these services remain in this community while amplifying the scope of our clinical services to the benefit of our patients, community, physicians and hospital staff.”

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