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Tax would help Kern River Valley's only hospital avoid closure

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The Kern River Valley’s only hospital may be shut down in 2030 if voters don’t pass Measure C, a parcel tax on the June ballot that would fund state-required seismic retrofitting, hospital officials say.

The tax, which would cost property owners $98 per parcel per year for 40 years and generate about $32 million, would be used to build an expanded emergency room. The election is June 6.

The current ER, a cramped, two-room wing that accommodates as many as a dozen patients at once, violates patient privacy laws and cannot withstand an 8.0-magnitude earthquake, which would put it in violation of state law in 2030, said Tim McGlew, CEO of the Kern Valley Healthcare District, which includes Kern Valley Hospital.

If the hospital isn’t seismically retrofitted, the state will not renew its license and it will have to close, McGlew said.

“We have seniors up here and it’s a quality-of-life issue, and in many cases, this could be life or death if that canyon is closed and you can’t get out to another ER,” said Deborah Hess, a public relations administrator with Kern Valley Hospital.

But the tax measure could face difficulty in the Lake Isabella region, one of the most impoverished regions of the county. Voters have rejected similar ballot measures twice in the past few years. About 54 percent voted yes in 2010; in 2006 the measure lost by roughly 70 votes. It needs two-thirds voter approval to pass.

Cheryl Moore, a Kern River Valley resident who admitted patients into the hospital in the late 1990s, said she knows how short-staffed and cramped the ER is. But the parcel tax still won’t get her support.

Moore, who lives off social security benefits, said if she could afford it, she would, “but right now I can’t. The times are so hard.”

Likewise, 53-year-old Robert Graham acknowledged the cause is worthy but he doesn’t go to Kern Valley Hospital, where he said he’s endured long wait times for blood testing and other services. He takes his wife to a hospital in Bakersfield instead, he said.

He said he sees the value of a local emergency hospital, but the $98 per year price tag is unsustainable for those living on fixed incomes.

“If I could afford it and I were working, I’d support it myself,” said Graham. “This place right here is the disability income capital of the world. It’s hard to squeeze that money out.”

McGlew said he understands the economics of the region, and it’s not the hospital’s intent “to harm them financially.” But without the tax, the hospital — the Kern River Valley’s second-largest employer — may not survive, he said.

The hospital doesn't have the money to pay for construction itself because a majority of its patients are on Medi-Cal, McGlew said.

Others wrote the hospital off because it doesn’t provide specialty services, forcing them to drive to facilities in Bakersfield. The hospital’s mission is to provide critical care, but it doesn’t employ specialists, McGlew said.

If the measure passes, part of the hospital’s plans include expanding facilities to introduce chemotherapy services.

The hospital has secured a $28 million loan through the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development program for construction, but it comes with some strings attached. The district must pass a tax to ensure the federal government gets repaid, and ground must be broken by September, one year after the hospital secured the loan, said Judy Hyatt, campaign chair for the Friends of Kern Valley Hospital.

If either of those terms is not met, the hospital would forfeit the low-interest loan and be forced to seek a higher-interest construction loan, Hyatt said.

“If the community decides this is something they just can’t support, we lose the USDA loan and have to start all over,” Hyatt said.

But that’s not something hospital officials are counting on.

Kern Valley Hospital has the region’s only emergency room, logging more than 7,000 visits last year, and is a vital facility if roads leading out of the valley are closed, McGlew said. That was the case when the Erskine Fire devastated the area, charring 48,000 acres. He said that disaster underscored the importance of the hospital.

“I think (Erskine) woke a lot of people to the need that we’ve got to keep this hospital going, because when we’re cut off, there’s no way for ambulances or even helicopters to get into us,” McGlew said.

It’s especially crucial if patients suffer a stroke, giving them a three-hour window to get “clot-busting drugs” into their system before sustaining permanent damage, McGlew said. If there weren’t a hospital in town, that would be difficult, he said.

Beyond the shape of the ER, critical lab equipment like the hospital’s MRI machine can’t fit inside the facility, so it has to be stored in a trailer in the parking lot. That means when a patient needs to use that machine, whether it’s raining, snowing or 110 degrees outside, the hospital must wheel him or her out the back door and through the lot, McGlew said.

If the bond passes, those machines would be moved inside.

Michael Turnipseed, executive director of the Kern Taxpayers' Association, said his organization was unaware of Measure C, and parcel taxes are something it generally doesn't favor — but health care is a whole other issue.

"Health care is something you don't really mess with. They have a hospital, it's very tough to make it [financially], and they want to keep the hospital open," Turnipseed said. "The question is, does marginal cost equal marginal benefit? Is it worth $100 a year to have a hospital open to take care of you if you need it?" 

​Harold Pierce covers education and health for The Californian. He can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce

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