Kern Medical Center officials got the go-ahead from Kern County supervisors Tuesday to begin the process of hiring 15 workers -- at the cost of $1.47 million annually -- to manage a new healthcare plan for county workers and their families.

Those who run the county-owned hospital hope to offer the plan, which is expected to have premiums half as expensive as the next-cheapest option, to a portion of county workers by July 1.

If successful, the plan could be offered to all county employees in November.

But for the plan to be successful, Kern Medical Center must sell itself to the employees who are considering which of the many county health plans to take.

That is because the plan would require employees who join to use KMC exclusively for their hospital care, testing and pharmacy needs.

Hospital CEO Paul Hensler said Kern Medical Center's reputation as the Bakersfield hospital for the poor is going to keep some workers away.

Many have told him they won't go there.

"Often what I hear from my more affluent friends is, 'That is the poor hospital,'" Hensler said. "It's not something everybody is going to do. I'm not sure it's something most people are going to do."

But many county workers already do use the hospital, including many hospital employees, Hensler said.

And workers will still be able to get their primary care from private physicians in the community, and that could make the option attractive to people who want to keep their doctors but are looking for a cheaper option or not expecting to need much hospital care.

KMC is working to build a contract with a network of local primary care physicians who would take county workers.

Supervisors cheered the plan, as did the county's largest union, the Service Employees International Union, and the Kern County Taxpayers' Association.

"I enthusiastically support us going forward," said Supervisor Zack Scrivner. "This is an opportunity to shore up the finances of KMC."

But Supervisors Mike Maggard and Leticia Perez asked Hensler and KMC Senior Projects Manager Jaycee Cooper what they would do to market the plan.

Cooper said KMC will be working to connect with employees, including launching a competition to name the plan.

She said about 2,400 lives -- including employees and their family members -- are covered by the current EPO plan through contractor Managed Care Systems and KMC expects those members and employees receiving service through a Kaiser Permanente plan to at least consider joining the new option.


Also Tuesday, supervisors appointed Konrad Moore as Kern County public defender.

Moore has been the interim public defender since October when Public Defender Art Titus retired.

Moore remembered the leadership of Titus -- who passed away not long after his retirement -- and his predecessor, Mark Arnold, in accepting the job.

He also said the office is committed to defending the rights of the indigent charged with crimes.

"I'm deeply honored to work alongside our staff," he said. "We want to make sure each of our clients know they do not stand alone."

But Moore also said the office is committed to working with the county and other arms of the justice system to run a lean and effective court system.