The board of the Del Norte Healthcare District voted Tuesday to seek consultants for advice related to eminent domain action against the embattled Sutter Coast Hospital.
The process would seek to stop plans to change the hospital to a Critical Access facility, a proposal that has seen vocal opposition for more than two years.
If granted, eminent domain would allow the government agency to take control of the hospital for public use.
The five-member board discussed its decision at its monthly meeting Tuesday night. Board member Dwayne Reichlin said Sutter Health administration was not willing to scrap its plans to convert the local hospital into a Critical Access hospital and “regionalize” its governing body, which would move its local governing powers to a Bay Area-based Sutter Health group.
“It has been determined in the last two months since we met with these folks that Sutter Health believes that their decision to continue with regionalization and Critical Access designation is the best that they can offer the residents in the community,” Reichlin said.
A Critical Access designation would limit the number of inpatient beds at the facility to 25, which could lead to an increase of patients being transferred to other hospitals. Reichlin claimed during Tuesday’s meeting that Sutter Health has already cut staffing and closed beds to prepare for Critical Access.
The board’s decision came after a special meeting held Monday night, where the board met with its Los Angeles attorney via teleconference. The attorney outlined all the steps necessary to pursue eminent domain action.
There was some confusion among board members about whether it actually approved proceeding with an eminent domain process during the special Monday meeting.
Board member Clark Moore read a resolution from the special meeting, which he felt did not give an endorsement or vote to pursuing eminent domain. Moore’s response was in reference to Reichlin’s comment that hiring consultants was the first step in the process.
“You said that this would start the process. That is not correct. We are not starting the process of eminent domain. Because that’s not what the motion says,” Moore said.
“I did not vote to start the process,” Moore said later in the meeting. “I want that perfectly clear.”
The other board members disagreed with Moore and said that the board was considering eminent domain as an option.
“We wouldn’t have hired a consultant if we weren’t considering eminent domain,” Reichlin said. “It’s not something that just happens. It’s something we have to work into.”
Mitch Hanna, the hospital’s interim chief executive officer, told the Triplicate he was not aware of the Tuesday meeting and was disappointed with the Healthcare District’s decision, which he says could be costly for the community.
“It’s unfortunate that they decided to seek eminent domain because it would be a waste,” Hanna said. “It’s their prerogative.”
Hanna denied Reichlin’s claim that the hospital has already closed beds.
Hanna also responded to allegations of increased patient transfers due to lack of beds, saying that patient transfers are usually for speciality services that the hospital does not offer. The hospital averages 600 to 700 transfers for specialty services each year, he said.
He reiterated the hospital’s stance that a Critical Access facility would be best to serve the community because of decreases to Medicare reimbursement under the Affordable Care Act. Hanna said that 80 percent of Sutter Coast’s funding comes from Medicare and Medicaid.
The issue between Sutter Health and local community leaders and residents has been ongoing since the hospital’s Board of Directors voted to transfer governing power to a regional board in the Bay Area in December 2011.
A lawsuit was filed against Sutter Health in April by Beverly Hussey, the widow of the donor of the land where the hospital is located, based on allegations that the contract for the donation requires Sutter Coast to remain an Acute Care hospital and plaintiffs say a Critical Access hospital does not qualify.
No timeline has been set for pursuing eminent domain after consultant feedback. Reichlin said the process would take some time.