Voters in west Contra Costa County overwhelmingly passed a parcel tax Tuesday to resuscitate Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo, which has the region's only full-service emergency room.
Measure J won by 74 percent, according to semiofficial results. It needed a two-thirds majority to pass.
"We're very pleased that voters recognize the importance of keeping this hospital open," said Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia. "This gives us some breathing room to work out a long-term sustainable financial model."
The $47-per-year tax will bring in about $5 million annually, enough to stave off creditors and keep Doctors Medical Center open for the foreseeable future.
If the tax failed, the hospital would have almost certainly closed, officials said. That would have left no full-service emergency rooms between Berkeley and Vallejo. Those suffering from heart attacks, strokes, car accidents and other emergencies would have faced critical delays to get to the nearest hospitals.
"I'm absolutely thrilled," said San Pablo Mayor Paul Morris. "We now have the opportunity to turn this whole thing around. There's an incredible amount of optimism out there."
Doctors, originally called Brookside, opened in 1954, and generations of west county residents were born or died there. Nearly everyone has been down the pastel-colored corridors: bringing in a sick child at 3 a.m., visiting a suffering loved one, seeing friends healed and comforted.
As a district hospital, Doctors is akin to Marin General and Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley. It's overseen by a publicly elected board, with a mission to serve the 250,000 or so residents who reside in the district.
But as private insurance costs and medical expenses began to soar in the 1990s, Doctors was especially hard hit. Many of Doctors' patients had limited insurance or none at all, leaving the hospital with chronic debts.
In 1997, faced with few options, the hospital merged with a for-profit health care chain called Tenet. That arrangement lasted until 2004, when Tenet pulled out. No other hospital company, such as Sutter, has expressed interest in saving Doctors since then.
By 2006, the hospital was on life support. Voters OKd a $54-per-year parcel tax, but it wasn't enough to keep Doctors from filing for bankruptcy. To avert a public health crisis, the county intervened, helping oversee the hospital and - along with Kaiser, the state and federal government - providing grants.
But the health care funding quagmire, locally as well as nationally, has not improved. Doctors' problems have only worsened with time, chief executive Dawn Gideon said.
The parcel tax will help, but the hospital also plans to permanently rein in costs by sharing more services with other hospitals, refinancing debt and making further cuts to administration.
The cuts will total $18 million, enough to close the gap in the hospital's $139 million overall budget, Gideon said.
It's a sad story, but one that could be quite common. Whether it's a library, a police department, school teachers or in this case a hospital, municipal budget deficits are forcing tough choices.
While I'm opposed to tax increases like this until unions at a minimum reset pay, over time, other pay, benefits and retirement, the voters through a democratic process voted for a higher tax, albeit being held hostage by unions not being a part of the solution in any significant manner.
So, today it's a $47 increase on real estate taxes, tomorrow it's an increase in the sales tax rate to help the county, then it's the teacher's or firemen or policemen with another special tax, and then tax on gas goes up.
What's not being written about is the impact of the continuation of higher taxes and fees, oh sure $47 is peanuts, but as we might see more and more of this, it all adds up and compresses net income, which ultimately impacts consumer spending and real estate affordability, which could again impact municipal budgets.
And, does it really cure anything or is it just a band aid? This hospital seems to have been on life support for the better part of one decade maybe two.
The $47 adds $5 million, but the hospital still has to cut $18 million. Their solution is about sharing services, refinancing debt and cutting admin. Those are all one time and more of the kick the can approach we see at all municipals.
It sounds like the hospital isn't even close to solving the real issues. What happens if the oversight of the hospital is wrong, and there's a deficit in subsequent years. Then what?
I would expect to see more and more of this attempted by local municipalities because no one wants to deal with unions head on, and voters are unwilling to let services like this go in the near term to force a long term resolution.
I would have let the hospital close. My family lives in a remote part of Montana, and the nearest hospital is 30 minutes away in good whether, in the winter it might be 60-90 minutes away, and it's not an issue. The point being, we don't need every service at ever increasing costs to the public to support muni pay levels, we're lead to believe that, but it's not the case.
Hope all is well.
J.D. Rosendahl, Rosey