Community Hospital could cease emergency room operations by June 2019 or earlier if a solution cannot be found to keep it in compliance with the state's seismic mandates. Photo: Jason Ruiz
With the future of Community Hospital of Long Beach in jeopardy due to failures to meet state seismic standards for acute care facilities, the Long beach City Council hosted a study session to examine possible futures for the site that is currently home to the east side’s only emergency room.
Founded in 1924, Community Hospital has been a staple of healthcare service in the city for nearly a century. It survived the 1933 Long Beach earthquake but now a seismic assessment threatens to shutter the site as an acute care provider—short-term care treatment for severe illness or injuries—if the site is not retrofitted to comply with state law.
If no action is taken, Community is slated to be closed no later than June 2019. The announcement became public earlier this month after MemorialCare Medical Group, the parent company of Long Beach Memorial, Miller Children’s Hospital and current operator of Community, stated its intent to wind down operations at the location.
Community Hospital Chief Executive Officer John Bishop said that while the fault was known to both parties—the city owns the land and rents it to Memorial for $1 a year—a more recent analysis has shown that the fault line is much wider and affects more of the property making it non-compliant with California law.
“The fault was not only much larger than we thought, but it’s also active,” Bishop said of the latest results of the hospital’s seismic report. “We initially thought there was a second fault but it turned out to be the perimeter of a fault zone that runs underneath the majority of the property.”
Bishop said that the company will be extending retention bonuses to those doctors and nurses that stick it out until the hospital officially closes its doors as an emergency services provider. It’s expected that physicians will begin to leak out to other area hospitals and Bishop said Community is in efforts to retain those nurses that are certified to work at Memorial which requires a bachelor’s degree in nursing for its registered nurses.
A number of nurses, doctors and community members were on hand to protest the possible closure of the facility as they argued that it is not only a critical piece of the city’s medical network, but a life saver in many instances for those living on the city’s east and southeast.
Dr. Nayyer Ali, a critical care specialist for the past 20 years at Memorial, Miller and Community, disputed Bishop’s assertion that Community’s patients—they account for about 10 percent of the city’s emergency room visits—could easily be absorbed by the surrounding hospitals.
Ali said that even with the 20 intensive care unit beds Community has to offer, the number helps add to the grand total available to the city which includes Memorial’s roughly 60 beds. He noted that often times patients at Community require a higher level of care and need to be transferred to Memorial but face difficulties as Memorial currently lacks the capacity.
“So although Community is a small hospital it has the potential to provide a lot of critical care,” Ali said. “Although there are empty beds in hospitals around here, in the ICU and ERs we have capacity constraints. I was admitting a patient in the ER at Memorial and I saw four patients lying on gurneys in the hallways because they did not have room for them. In the winter time it gets worse, we have patients at St. Mary’s and Memorial that have to wait 24 or even up to 48 hours in the emergency room until an ICU bed opens up for them.”
Andrew Manos, Community’s chief of staff, said that the long waits already inherent at alternative sites like Memorial and Los Alamitos Medical Center would only get worse.
“We need the ER space because people are going to die on route,” Manos said. “These are fantastic facilities there. Memorial has fantastic facilities but if you can’t get there you will die.”
Ninety-four-year-old Laura Matthews knows that Manos is right. She said that without Community’s emergency room she would have died on three separate occasions and so too would many of her neighbors at the senior living community she calls home.
“Very often, on the average once a week, paramedics come down to pick up one of our seniors to take them to the hospital,” Matthews said. “The reason they can come back is because they get to the hospital in time to be saved.”
Many of the city’s hospitals are located in the central and western portion of town and for east side residents, that could mean critical minutes would be added to a medical transport in the event of an emergency.
Long Beach Fire Chief Mike Duree spoke to this noting that not only would it increase transport time, but an influx of already crowded emergency facilities could further bog down the city’s fire resources as they wait to admit patients. That “wall time”currently stands at about 50 minutes, something Duree said would certainly get worse if Community no longer admits emergency patients.
The notion that the time to receive medical treatment could be increased for some residents shortly after the city used Measure A dollars to bolster its response times to North Long Beach with the restoration of Rescue 12 during last year’s budget cycle was not lost on the council, especially those who represent the side of the city that stands to be most affected.
“One of the first things we did when we restored public safety services was to bring back fire rescues and engines because the response times in certain parts of our community were so far out of line with what the best practices would be,” said Third District Councilwoman Suzie Price. “Now we’re saying that people in an emergency situation, that it’s a minimal impact on them if they have to drive anywhere between five to fifteen minutes to get emergency services. That to me sounds like a very difficult proposition and a hard one to accept.”
Although Community is not certified for pediatric, stroke or traumas, a number of calls end up there before possibly being transferred to higher level hospitals like Memorial. In total, Community accounts for about 10 percent of the city’s emergency room visits.
City staff said it will investigate the findings of the seismic report commissioned by Community and seek out all possible options to try and keep the facility open. That could include reaching out to state legislators for another extension for the hospital to keep it in legal operation past 2019, or putting out a request for proposal to other hospital providers to see what they could potentially offer at the site.
Mayor Robert Garcia applauded Memorial and Community staff for their hard work over the years to provide service to city residents and acknowledged that any time a city loses a hospital it’s “devastating for a community”. He pledged that the city would be committed over the next few years to finding a solution in keeping the site dedicated to emergency services.
“It would be my interest that we, one, keep Community open as long as possible, two, that that site should be a hospital,” Garcia said. “There’s a lot of conversation about the site but we need to have emergency care at that site and an emergency room on that site.”