Doctors Medical Center set to close in San Pablo

SAN PABLO, Calif. (KTVU and wires) -- The halls of Doctors Medical Center were quiet Tuesday as the few remaining employees readied the hospital to close its doors after more than five decades of serving the residents of West Contra Costa County.

The word on many peoples' lips was "tragedy."

"It's a real tragedy. Patients here have nowhere to go," said nurse Eileen Scott, the clinical director of oncology services for Doctors Medical Center. "People who have insurance can go anywhere, but for those who don't, where are they going to go?"

As patients streamed out of the center today after picking up their medical records, some had an idea of where they would seek care next, even if they weren't happy about it.

"It's just not fair that the closest hospitals are all in directions where there's so much traffic," said DMC patient Carol Gotzhein. "If there's something wrong with you, you are in trouble."

Her husband, Bernd Gotzhein, added, "If I have a stroke, I don't know how I'll make it."

The Gotzheins will be seeking care at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley, they said. Others are planning on going to Kaiser Permanente Richmond Medical Center.

One longtime El Cerrito resident, Diane, who declined to give her last name, said it hasn't been easy thinking about where to go next.

"To go out to John Muir (Medical Center), you could be dead by the time you go out there," she said. "Seriously, it's true."

The city of San Pablo is hoping that most of the residents who previously used emergency room services at Doctors Medical will be able to go to a new urgent care clinic that opened today across the street from the DMC campus.

The clinic, operated by LifeLong Medical Care, is housed in a building that until last month was part of Doctors Medical's property.

The money from the sale of two medical office buildings, a condominium and a parking lot -- which totaled $7.5 million -- was used to cover the costs associated with closing the hospital, West Contra Costa County Healthcare District board chairman Eric Zell said.

The new clinic will be open from noon to 8 p.m. each day, said Dr. Eric Henley, chief medical officer for LifeLong Medical Care.

While the urgent care center won't be able to handle surgeries, heart attacks, or many of the conditions that emergency departments are equipped to handle, it will be able to care for 85 percent of the cases that the DMC emergency room dealt with on a day-to-day basis, he said.

"It's things like, 'I fell and I hurt myself, did I sprang something? Do I have a fever and do I need to take medicine for it? I'm having trouble breathing, do I need something for that?'" Henley said.

The clinic will be able to handle roughly half of the number of patients who came to the emergency department at Doctors Medical for care, LifeLong Medical Care chief administrative officer DL Poole said.

Poole said the clinic is preparing to apply for a building permit from the city to double the number of rooms it has available for urgent care.

For patients who aren't sure what kind of care they will need, Contra Costa Health Services has developed an online resource list and a nurse hotline that's open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, free of charge.

It's unclear what the future of health care will hold for west county residents. San Pablo Mayor Kathy Chao Rothberg said the city has set aside a 7-acre plot of land for a health care campus that is located roughly a quarter of a mile from Doctors Medical.

Although Chao Rothberg said the city is already moving forward on a plan for some kind of health care facility at the site, albeit perhaps not a stand-alone public hospital, the question that plagued Doctors Medical's last days remains: Who will pay for it?

"We've started the infrastructure for the roads and intersections but what we're looking at right now is finding the right partner," Chao Rothberg said.

Zell said that before the hospital was set to close, the board hired a consultant who spent a year soliciting investors and ultimately, no one wanted to pour their money into a hospital that for decades has bled $18 million to $20 million annually.

Doctors Medical's deficit stemmed from a patient mix with 90 percent insured by Medi-Cal, Medicare or who were uninsured and only 10 percent paying with commercial insurance, Zell said.

For a new facility to be financially viable, Chao Rothberg said the operators would have to attract a more balanced mix of payers and get more creative with funding, including hosting fundraising events in the vein of the University of California at San Francisco.

"We have to look at different types of financing," Chao Rothberg said.

A list of the health care resources for West Contra Costa County residents can be found at Patients who wish to contact the 24/7 Advice Nurse Line can call (877) 661-6230.