Santa Clara County officials turned up the heat on California Attorney General Xavier Becerra a week before he was to appear in court and attempt to block the sale of O’Connor and St. Louise hospitals to the county.
A decision from the Jan. 30 showdown in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Los Angeles could come as early as Feb. 1, lawyers said last week.
In the final days before the court date, Becerra gave no indication he would budge from his opposition to the sale of the two hospitals.
In a noon press conference Jan. 24, the county went public with calls for residents to join a social media blitz targeting Becerra, coupled with pleas from local health officials, union leaders and California elected officials and testimonials from Latino patients—all aimed at showing the importance of keeping the two hospitals open.
There was no immediate sign that any of this made the newly elected attorney general budge from a hardline position that the county says could close the two hospitals owned by failing Verity Health System.
“Attorney General Becerra has rejected all of our good-faith efforts to resolve his objections to the county purchasing the hospitals,” County Executive Jeff Smith said into a bank of media microphones set up in a patio outside the Santa Clara Government Center. “It is clear the Department of Justice is more concerned about protecting its power than protecting the health of Santa Clara County residents.”
Smith, a lawyer and medical doctor, warned, “If O’Connor and St. Louise hospitals close, communities in the county would lose significant access to critical healthcare. The closure of O’Connor and St. Louise hospitals will very likely mean that some people will suffer needless delay in obtaining critical health care, and such delays may imperil lives.”
“Maybe you should look at a map, Mr. Attorney General, so you can see the distance from Morgan Hill and Gilroy and San Martin to Valley Medical Center,” said Sally Armendariz of Gilroy, who spoke at the press conference about the importance of St. Louise Regional Hospital to citizens in southern Santa Clara County. “If people are having a genuine emergency, they’ll die before they get there.”
She said Becerra “should be proud that Santa Clara County is willing to have a medical center for all its residents, not just San Jose.”
Her sentiments were echoed by Dr. Sara Cody, county health officer and director of the Public Health Department, who said keeping St. Louise and O’Connor hospital “open and thriving is so important to our communities, and South County in particular.”
Cody said that Gilroy and Morgan Hill have higher mortality rates due to cancer, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s, chronic lower respiratory disease and diabetes than the county’s overall population. “Also teen birth rates are significantly higher in South County, compared to the rest of the county,” she said.
“People living in this area need more access to health care, not less,” Cody said.
Standing behind the speakers at the press conference were medical staff and patients of the two hospitals, holding signs that read, “Tell AG Becerra, Don’t Block Hospitals’ Sale,” with links to the attorney general’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, and a hashtag of #SaveSCCHospitalsAG.
The $235 million sale of O’Connor and St. Louise hospitals was approved late last month by a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge in Los Angeles, who also overruled objections by Becerra to the county’s acquisition of the two hospitals. The attorney general has appealed that decision to U.S. District Court, and is asking the bankruptcy judge to stay his ruling pending the outcome of the appeal, which could take months. A hearing on his stay request is set for Jan. 30, with a ruling expected as early as Feb. 1.
Any delay could be fatal to the two hospitals, because the county’s purchase agreement expires March 1, and there are no other offers on the table.
Smith said in an interview that he does not expect Becerra to prevail, but added that for the next week at least, the threat of the hospitals closing is real—and unnecessary. He said Becerra was engaging in political posturing, with no concern for healthcare needs of Santa Clara County.
Verity Health System is seeking protection under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code for massive debts incurred by its six hospitals. Verity announced last week it has a single bid pending for the other four hospitals, including two in San Mateo County—Seton Medical Center in Daly City and its Coastside branch in Moss Beach—and two in Los Angeles.
“The closing of St. Louis Hospital would be detrimental to our communities,” Morgan Hill Mayor Rich Constantine told the press conference audience last week. “The nearest emergency center is 25 to 35 miles away, and as you have heard, if you are suffering from a stroke or a heart attack, that might as well be from here to the moon.”
Constantine had sent a letter Becerra on behalf of the city urging him to reconsider.
“The actions by Attorney General Becerra are literally putting a wall around South County. The 110,000 citizens of South County deserve better, and the county has promised that,” Constantine said.
Supervisor Joe Simitian, president of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and chair of the county’s Health and Hospital Committee, said at the press conference, “The sale has already been approved. The attorney general has already made these arguments and lost.
“It isn’t really about lawyers and lawsuits…, about power and politics,” he added. “What it is about and what it should be about is the …Santa Clara County residents who won’t have a hospital bed if this deal crumbles.”
Smith said more than 2,000 employees of O’Connor and St. Louise have applied for the open positions created by the county, in anticipation of the takeover this spring, and approximately 700 physicians are ready to join the expanded county hospital system. Smith said that over the next few weeks, the county will expend significant staff and financial resources to review and process job applications and onboard the physicians to the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center medical staff by the Feb. 28 deadline.
If Becerra gets his stay order, these approximately 2,000 employees would lose their jobs and the physicians would lose their contracts, Smith said.
He said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, whose Congressional district includes San Jose and much of southern Santa Clara County, is on board. Lofgren released a statement Jan. 24, that read, “I have conveyed directly to California Attorney General Xavier Becerra that it is in the best interests of my constituents that these medical facilities continue to serve our local communities’ healthcare needs.”
“I am doing everything I can to keep these hospitals open,” said Supervisor Mike Wasserman, who represents South County. He did not attend the press conference, but appeared on one of the county’s YouTube videos directed at Becerra, a former six-term Congressman.
“For workers, the purchase means having a job. The AG’s decision to block the purchase could leave thousands of healthcare workers unemployed,” said Ben Field, executive office of the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council. “While the county can’t save the workers from all the hardships brought upon by Verity Health’s bankruptcy, the county is offering thousands of professionals the chance to continue working for two local hospitals in their community.”
County officials and health representatives are encouraging people who live and work in Santa Clara County to contact Becerra to urge him to save the hospitals.
Contact Attorney General Xavier Becerra at:
Use the hashtag: #SaveSCChospitalsAG
Or call 800-952-5225
Option 1 – English or Option 2 – Spanish
Callers will then be offered 7 options. Option #7 allows callers to leave a message.
This link provides access to the documents filed in the federal bankruptcy action: http://www.kccllc.net/verityhealth/document/list/4736
Here are links to county YouTube videos:
Community members: https://youtu.be/qLNJcNg6O84
County Officials (Supervisors Dave Cortese, Susan Ellenberg, and Mike Wasserman): https://youtu.be/ro3obi66p3g