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By Shawn Raymundo

City officials are expected to resume discussions with a potential medical provider interested in reopening and operating San Clemente’s shuttered hospital after initial progress was delayed for months because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

In a status update for the council’s July 7 meeting, the city said it has reinitiated the process in evaluating a submission from Palomar Health, the sole medical organization that submitted a proposal expressing interest in running the local hospital back in February.

“Palomar Health’s proposal indicates possible partnership opportunities as well as a preferred legal and organizational structure,” the report said, before explaining that the city paused its request for proposals (RFP) process at the start of the public health crisis in March “due to limited staff resources while mitigating the City through the pandemic.”

As part of its efforts to reopen a hospital with an emergency room at the site of MemorialCare’s former medical campus on Camino de los Mares, the city initiated the RFP that sought submissions from parties interested in operating the facility. Responses to the RFP were due back to the city by Feb. 12.

Palomar Health, a San Diego County-based medical system that operates three hospitals, as well as specialty clinics and other facilities, submitted a formal proposal to the city, highlighting some of its key services such as a neurosurgery program with UC San Diego.

“In a potential partnership with San Clemente, while it’s true that Palomar Health would bring existing policies and procedures, we would also look to our partners for input on the operational style that fits with the community and the legacy of the hospital itself,” Palomar’s proposal stated.

The city’s report did note that it also received a joint letter from UC San Diego Health and UC Irvine Health on Feb. 6, in which they expressed a desire to explore “a range of collaboration opportunities” for the former MemorialCare facility. However, the two organizations said they “will not be submitting a response to the RFP.”

“We believe the presence of an academic health system would open up new possibilities for delivery and advancement of the healthcare not possible with partnerships with other types of health providers,” the letter stated. “With this in mind, UCI Health has reached out to UC San Diego Health as a potential partner—taking advantage of unparalleled clinical, scientific and operational expertise represented within our two premier health organizations.”

According to the city, the letter was received “outside of the RFP process.” It’s unclear how the city intends to proceed with UCI Health and UC San Diego Health’s request to speak with local officials.

MemorialCare closed its Saddleback Memorial Medical Center back in 2016, but has recently used the grounds as a mobile testing center for the coronavirus. The operator wanted to turn the facility into an urgent care location. However, residents and the city council at that time rejected such a notion, advocating instead for an emergency room and hospital facilities.

In December, the council had approved the initiation of the RFP process. According to a draft of the RFP that was publicized and later gutted prior to the council’s vote this past winter, the city estimated the cost to renovate the hospital was about $62.81 million, while a whole new facility was anticipated to cost about $163 million.

The plans to reinitiate the RFP process comes at a time when Orange County has seen a surge in hospitalizations from COVID-19. As of Monday, July 6, 634 people were reportedly admitted to a county hospital, with 203 of them being treated in intensive care units. Monday’s report from the county marked a new record-high in both hospitalizations and ICU patients.

The city recently tried another approach in getting the hospital reopened by seeking assistance from the state. Back in April, city councilors voted to send a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office asking for his help in reopening the hospital, specifically to treat non-COVID patients.

Noting that the pandemic has altered the environment when it comes to medical services, creating new impacts, the city’s report said the changes “will be considered during the RFP review and evaluation process.”

According to the city, two councilmembers are tasked with leading the meeting with Palomar. Councilmember Chris Hamm confirmed that he and Councilmember Gene James will meet with Palomar.

Following that meeting and at the conclusion of the review, city staff is expected to prepare a report for consideration to the council at a future meeting.

Requests seeking additional comment from city officials were not immediately returned as of this posting.

The council’s July 7 public session is scheduled for 6 p.m. and can be viewed through the city’s YouTube channel.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect the most current data from the Orange County Health Care Agency.

SR_1Shawn Raymundo
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.

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