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San Clemente hospital will cease operations on May 31, officials say
By Eric Heinz
After an 18-month effort to keep MemorialCare’s Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in San Clemente open, officials announced last week they will close the campus on May 31.
In a statement released by Saddleback Memorial Medical Center, administrator Tony Struthers said the health care provider will continue to examine possibilities of providing forms of urgent care to San Clemente residents, but the hospital services will cease May 31.
During a protest rally on March 9, San Clemente Mayor Bob Baker, Mayor Pro Tem Kathy Ward and Councilman Chris Hamm all vowed to keep emergency medical services present in San Clemente and would do what it takes to keep a hospital open.
“At this point, we will continue to provide ongoing medical and emergency services,” Struthers said in an email March 3, adding the services will continue for at least 90 days.
Struthers said the hospital, located at 654 Camino De Los Mares, will continue to meet with local officials and agencies to plan “a transition of services.”
MemorialCare officials have said since August 2014 the current hospital model is not feasible to keep open because of declining inpatient numbers. Inpatient services traditionally are large sources of funding for hospitals.
MemorialCare has owned the San Clemente hospital since 2005.
“This is not a decision we reached quickly,” Struthers stated. “It is the result of many discussions and deliberations. This was not the outcome we had sought or expected. We had hoped the campus could be used to expand health care services in the community. We envisioned a new modern ambulatory center that would better meet the community’s future health care needs and transform the campus into a health care destination.”
Struthers said no decision has been made regarding the sale of the San Clemente Campus.
“At this point we have had some inquiries but nothing beyond that,” he stated in an email.
CEO of Saddleback Memorial Medical Center Stephen Geidt said MemorialCare is “exploring all options.”
MemorialCare officials said they intend to but have not yet filed litigation regarding the city’s new zoning ordinance, which requires the owner of the land on which the hospital sits to provide emergency services and maintain a hospital.
Struthers said the hospital was averaging 11.6 inpatients a day before the closure. A total of 16 inpatient surgeries were done in February, less than one per day, and outpatient surgeries totaled 56 in that month. That was not enough to sustain the hospital, he said.
“We felt that was improper taking of private property, but we’ll let the courts settle that…to see if it was legal to do,” Geidt said. “It left us with something that cannot be sustained, continue to operate a hospital that is not sustainable or close, and I think we made the right decision.”
Geidt said current health care practice, availability of insurance and advancements in technology are all factors that are keeping people from needing inpatient care.
“I think it’s probably a function of the fact that we see a major transformation going on in the medical industry,” Geidt said. “The shift is from a hospital-centric health care delivery system to a health-centric health care delivery system. The idea that the hospital is not the center of the universe is becoming very clear to the people who are in the industry.”
Geidt said a change in the medical industry has been going on in the last 10 years and accelerated in the last five due to the Affordable Healthcare Act.
People currently taken to the San Clemente hospital for emergency care for cardiac, stroke and trauma cases are stabilized but have to be taken to another emergency facility due to the lack of services the hospital provides, Struthers said.
“Like many small hospitals across the country, the San Clemente inpatient facility has continued to experience declining volumes,” Struthers said.
Options That Never Came to Pass
Originally the hospital came up with proposals to establish a large outpatient ambulatory care center in the hospital’s place, but that was dismissed by community members as not being adequate medical services for San Clemente.
Officials then made a legislative effort to allow for a free-standing, or “boutique” or “satellite” hospital, with fewer amenities but similar emergency services hospitals offer. This is currently not legal under California law.
Assemblyman Bill Brough and State Sen. Patricia Bates introduced separate bills in their respective houses to try to change that law, but both bills died in committees in January. Following that defeat, the city of San Clemente enacted the zoning ordinance.
“Without legislation to allow a satellite emergency department and given this new restrictive rezoning that requires hospital services and a declining census, that makes operation of an acute care facility unsustainable,” Struthers said. “The vision to convert the campus into a modern ambulatory care center cannot be achieved.”
Some employees from the San Clemente hospital are currently or will be retained within the MemorialCare system, while others have sought employment elsewhere.
“We are working with our approximately 150 full-time and part-time employees to help them identify other potential employment opportunities within the (MemorialCare) health care system and our sister facilities,” Struthers said. “We hope to place as many employees in other positions within the health system and with other sister facilities.”
The nearest hospitals to San Clemente that provide emergency services are Mission Hospital, 7 miles from Saddleback Memorial Medical Center; Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo, about 9 miles away on Interstate 5; and MemorialCare’s Laguna Hills location, about 15 miles away on I-5.
Reactions to the Closure
Both Brough and Bates said they will pursue further options to provide health care in South Orange County.
“We are considering all options and are consulting with community members to find a realistic solution that works for the region,” their joint statement read.
During various community meetings, many people criticized MemorialCare’s assertions of not being able to continue hospital operations as flawed reasoning, citing the margins of revenue from the hospital’s nonprofit tax forms. Hospital officials countered that the nonprofit margins were combined tax forms and that San Clemente’s population could not support a large hospital facility.
In a statement, Gus Gialamas, president of Save Saddleback San Clemente Hospital Foundation, said “12,000 people have signed petitions to save the hospital, four City Councils have voted the same way, MemorialCare themselves said they wanted to maintain emergency services, yet they will close our only hospital costing lives, health care and jobs in our community.”
The foundation members protested the hospital closure at noon on Wednesday, March 9.
The San Clemente Hospital was built in 1971 and at one point provided more than 105 beds. Today, it provides 73 beds.
Editor’s note: More documents pertaining to this story can be found in the hyperlinks under the story “San Clemente Hospital to Close May 31” at www.sanclementetimes.com.
Click to Read Full Hospital Statement