In another potential blow to California's beleaguered hospitals, the state Assembly passed legislation that would prevent hospitals from quickly shutting down services in a financial crisis.
The bill, authored by Assemblyman Manny Diaz (D-San Jose) and sponsored by the California Nurses Association, would require hospitals to notify the public one year before closing an emergency room or acute-care facility, up from the 90-day notice now required. It would also force private hospitals that are closing to sell themselves at fair market value to a tax-funded healthcare district, if one were created through a ballot measure.
The Assembly had previously rejected the bill but approved it by a 44-34 margin on its second pass-one day after Monrovia (Calif.) Community Hospital abruptly shut down under mounting financial strain. The bill now goes to the Senate, where industry observers said it will likely be amended to require only a six-month notice.
"This common-sense bill allows local officials and the public more time to plan in the event of a pending closure-and to develop proposals to keep the hospitals open," said CNA President Deborah Burger. She added that many of the state's 42 hospital closures over the past decade have been the result of "anticompetitive business practices by corporate hospital chains" seeking to gain market share and boost profits.
The bill comes as HCA plans to shut down its aging San Jose (Calif.) Medical Center by 2006 rather than shoulder the high seismic-retrofitting costs, and consolidate services at its newer Regional Medical Center of San Jose, located two miles away. Diaz has strongly opposed the closure, arguing that it is the only hospital in the county served by a 24-hour bus line.
The bill also comes just months after financially struggling Santa Teresita Hospital, Duarte, abruptly closed down its emergency and acute-care services rather than face the high cost of the state's newly enacted nurse-to-patient staffing ratios. Santa Teresita, which still runs a skilled-nursing facility, now faces a lawsuit filed by 17 former nurses who say it violated labor laws when it laid them off without notice. The hospital is also under county and state investigation for allegedly failing to follow legal guidelines before closing.
Hospital officials oppose the bill, arguing that it would simply heap another burden on the state's already beleaguered hospital industry.
Jan Emerson, spokeswoman for the California Healthcare Association, said it would be almost impossible for many hospitals to remain operational for a full year after giving notice, because many employees typically quit and find new jobs within weeks or months of hearing about a hospital's plans to close.
"How can you force a hospital to stay open if it has no nurses, no physicians, no patients and no money?" she said. "And if they're losing money, how do they pay their bills? It's a very misguided bill."