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Central Valley Residency May Stay Open

Paul Hensler, CEO of Kern Medical Center in Bakersfield, said yesterday he plans to keep the family practice residency program intact.

Two weeks ago, the hospital announced it was closing that residency program to the incoming class of six residents, though the program itself would continue. Yesterday, Hensler said he and community members have been working hard to come up with a solution to keep the program.

“There are two scenarios,” Hensler said, “to either make the [Family Practice] department more cost-effective, or to develop a collaborative program with the community here.”

The collaborative approach would mean forging bonds with federally qualified health centers and other health care facilities in the area to help train residents. It also would mean arranging financial support from philanthropic sources and possibly from health plans, Hensler said. “The program clearly helps the community,” Hensler said, “so there may be some community support for the program, since we’re faced with not having graduates.”

Residents are physicians with medical degrees who need to complete training for their medical specialty. The family practice residency program costs the hospital roughly $5.5 million a year, Hensler said, with only a third of that cost coming from salary for the residents themselves. If other health facilities could help with the training and supervision, he said, that would be a big step toward rebooting the program.

“The major point is basically to take a breather,” Hensler said, “to find a more sustainable model. Experts are telling us to close and then start anew. The idea of not taking one class, is to have a high confidence level with the program moving forward. It’s not the intent to close the program.”

There are still many details to be worked out, but if the Central Valley hospital can keep its program, that would prompt a huge sigh of relief from health plans, county officials and nearby residents.

The Bakersfield area has a dearth of primary care physicians and that problem is likely to intensify. Demand for primary care providers is expected to climb in 2014 when federal health care reform expansions kick in. Kern Medical Center’s residency program is a vital pipeline for the area to woo new physicians to settle in the Central Valley, advocates said.

“Primary care physicians are highly valued in the community, and will be more valued [in 2014],” according to Carol Havens, president of the California Academy of Family Physicians. “Family practice residents tend to stay in the areas where they train, so it would be short-sighted to lose that program.”

Havens said she hasn’t heard of any other health care facilities that have contemplated elimination of a residency program.

“I’m not aware of any other residency program having such financial issues that they would close,” Havens said. “Most places have talked to us about starting new residency programs. The discussion is more about how to get one, rather than closing one.”

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