OAKLAND: Control Of Highland Hospital Changes Hands
Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle featured an in-depth report on Oakland's Highland Hospital, chronicling the challenges the public facility has faced in the past and the new ones it will soon confront. Highland "treat[s] anyone who walks through the door, regardless of ability to pay," but the hospital has suffered from "gross mismanagement," investigations by state regulators and budget problems. "Highland's been a disaster. Unfortunately, it's been on the back burner for years, and no one has wanted to deal with it," said Richard Warren, CEO of the El Camino Hospital District and new board member of Highland.
A Brand New Approach
In a first for the state, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors last month turned over control of the county's medical system to "an 11-member group of board-appointed volunteer doctors and CEOs of hospitals and businesses." The board is "part public, part private" -- it is "a separate legal business entity that owns the license to operate the medical center," but it is also required to have meetings open to the public and supervisors have vowed "to hover in the background" in case the board does not fulfill its responsibilities. The Chronicle reports that the "new group hopes to reverse Highland's reputation as the hospital of last resort" and wants to "infuse the public health care system with more money, reduce ER and clinic waiting times and ... woo patients back who have been lured away by for-profit hospitals." The new board is now in charge of the "fund-raising and financial juggling" necessary to keep the hospital running; in the past it has had an operating budget of $200 million.
Hope And Excitement
Many doctors support the "shift in hospital management from the county to the new authority board," the Chronicle reports. "I am real hopeful. I mean things are on the upswing here. Just 2 1/2 years ago, they were talking about closing this place down," said Dr. Barry Simon, chair of Highland's emergency medicine department. Others are a bit leery, but still encouraged. "This is a new day for the medical center. Sure, I'm nervous about whether this board can make it work. But I'm also excited. If we hold our ground, we can make some major changes," said Dr. Vicki Alexander, a Berkeley physician who lobbied the supervisors for renovations at the hospital.
Public health advocates, however, oppose the county's move, calling it "bad medicine." They say the creation of a new board is "a sneaky first step in privatizing the public medical center" and that "no matter how honorable their intentions," the board "will not have county revenue to fall back on if anything goes wrong." Dan Cloak of the advocacy group Vote Health, said, "The members have been handed the whole bag and told, 'Here, you do it.' They are the fall guys. If something goes wrong, the supes don't want to take the heat, so they've set up a political fire wall." But the supervisors maintain that the shift "was motivated by tough love -- they had to cut the hospital loose to save it." Supervisor Wilma Chan said, "Some people might think the Board (of Supervisors) is tired of dealing with the hospital and is giving it away. But that's not correct. We are doing this because it's going to give the hospital the best shot if it is going to succeed" (Hamburg, 8/2). Click Alameda to read past California Healthline coverage of the county's health system changes.