A federal judge has halted plans to rebuild a public hospital in Northern California because of allegations the facility is too far away from where minorities and poor people live.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong in San Francisco came in response to a class-action lawsuit alleging the planned $126 million Merrithew Memorial Hospital in Martinez, Calif., would serve mainly white residents who live nearby.
The ruling was made public last week.
County officials had argued that the current hospital is dilapidated, and they must move ahead with plans to replace it.
Opponents say Martinez, on the northern edge of Contra Costa County, about 20 miles northeast of the San Francisco, is too hard to reach for minorities and poor people. About 78% of county residents who are eligible for Medi-Cal live in the eastern and western sections of the county, up to 15 miles away.
Merrithew opponents say, instead of building a new hospital, officials should contract with existing hospitals already spread out in the county, Brookside Hospital in San Pablo and Mount Diablo Medical Center in Concord, and the recently closed Los Medanos Community Hospital in Pittsburg.
In her ruling, Judge Armstrong said rebuilding the hospital at its current location without improving public transportation or the availability of health services elsewhere in the county will "entrench and perpetuate the county's alleged systemic discrimination against the county's indigent minorities."
She told lawyers to appear in court this week to discuss a trial date on the suit mounted by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
County officials were surprised by the ruling because HHS had earlier cleared them of discrimination charges.
"Wow-I think I'm going to fall over," said Deputy County Counsel Vickie Dawes. "I'm sick. I can't even think straight. I am beyond shocked."
Kevin Degnan, M.D., a Merrithew opponent, said the case was significant because civil-rights issues were used to challenge the location of healthcare.
County Health Services Director Mark Finucane, however, said Judge Armstrong's decision was a "safe ruling."
"What the judge has decided is let's take a close look. Fine. It's a big project. It's a big deal," Mr. Finucane said.