Code Red at Western Med

Illustration by Bob AulThere are 3 million Orange Countians and something like 3 trillion cars on the road—okay, it's actually just 2 trillion—and every day countless people in those countless cars on all those freeways end up in body-mangling wrecks. If they're lucky—if they're not killed right then and there—they may be rushed to a trauma center where, under the brutal but healing ministrations of gifted surgeons, they are restored to something like functionality.

But there are only three such trauma centers serving OC—making it among the worst-served major metro areas in the nation—and things may be about to get worse. Santa Ana's Western Medical Center—one of the three OC hospitals with a heliport and trauma center—has had problems paying its bills, and its doctors are already seeking work at other hospitals because of concern about the financial future of their facility.

That's bad news to anyone who wants to survive a nasty traffic accident, said Felix Schwarz, executive director of the Orange County Health Care Council, a patient advocacy nonprofit based in Orange.

"This is a county crisscrossed by freeways, and there are accidents every day," Schwarz said. "If we lose another trauma center, people will die. We're not just talking about health care for the poor, we're talking about every one of the 3 million people who live in Orange County."

Schwarz said that if Western Medical Center closes its doors, Orange County will be faced with a major health-care crisis—one as serious as what happened in the late 1980s, when several emergency rooms and trauma centers went out of business because of rising health-care costs.

"This is another crisis along those lines," Schwarz said. "There will be deaths. As it is, we have a skeletal trauma system for the whole county, but it will be a crisis if we lose another. As far as Western Medical Center in Santa Ana, if it is in fact in a death spiral, if doctors are bailing out . . . I am very much afraid that the delivery of health care to the central portion of Orange County will be decimated."

"Doctors at Western [Medical Center] are applying [to work] at other hospitals in the area," said a Hoag Hospital physician who requested anonymity. "They're worried that Western will not be able to support their practices . . . Closing one more trauma center would put considerable stress on the county's other hospitals. It's a significant issue for the county's ability to provide health services."

As the Weekly has already reported, Santa Ana's Western Medical Center is one of four hospitals that Costa Mesa-based Integrated HealthCare Holdings Inc. (IHHI) purchased from Tenet Healthcare Corp. last year with an assist from Dr. Kali P. Chaudhuri, a physician turned hospital mogul. Chaudhuri's previous company, KPC—which shared his initials—bought dozens of Southern California clinics five years ago and then closed their doors, stranding hundreds of thousands of patients. Thanks to that track record, state Senator Joe Dunn (D-Garden Grove) held hearings in January that limited Chaudhuri's involvement in the deal.

IHHI officials admitted in a Dec. 22, 2004, meeting with Sen. Dunn that the hospital was in fact an "impaired asset." The financial situation hasn't improved much. On May 9, IHHI received a notice of default when it was unable to make scheduled payments on a $50 million loan. Taking note of that disturbing development, Dr. Michael Fitzgibbons, Western Medical Center's former chief of staff, wrote a May 19 e-mail to other doctors describing the financial situation at Western Medical Center as "ominous," adding that patient admissions "were down 20 percent."

IHHI promptly sued Fitzgibbons, charging him with defamation and interfering with the company's business. In an interview, Fitzgibbons said that the lawsuit has only made matters worse at the hospital.

"I don't think that any objective observer would dispute the fact that them suing me has actually worsened the situation," Fitzgibbons said. "It's created a hostile work environment. I have talked to people at St. Joseph's Hospital and Hoag [Hospital] who are perplexed and very concerned about the fallout of financial problems occurring at Western Medical Center.

"I make my living there doing consultations," Fitzgibbons added. "It's been fairly slow. I had somebody at St. Joseph's Hospital [in Orange] say, 'You should come over here.' I told him I am trying to maintain a positive attitude."

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