Today, struggling Tulare Regional Medical Center (TRMC) saw one of its most promising sources of potential funding killed quietly in Sacramento.
The proposal by Assemblyman Devon Mathis (R- Visalia) to provide $22 million in state budget funds for the reopening of the temporarily closed hospital was denied a vote Thursday (May 24) by the chairman of the Budget Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula (D- Fresno) and other Democratic leaders.
Community Rallied to Receive Funds
As a public district hospital, TRMC relies on the support of the surrounding community more than most healthcare facilities. Though little revenue flows directly from the district taxpayers to the hospital, the district’s board is elected and that board sometimes refers to the voters for input or assistance, such as bond measures.
This time, the community rallied to bolster the chances of Mathis’ proposal.
“We have organized Tulare. We collected and sent over 1,000 letters to the Assembly,” said Dr. Patricia Drilling, a TRMC proponent and member of Citizens for Hospital Accountability (CFHA), a group founded over two years ago to revive the mismanaged institution.
Among those letters were pleas from city council members and county supervisors, an explanation from Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward of the circumstances that led to the hospital’s current state of ruin (Ward’s office has called the ongoing investigation of TRMC “the largest investigation ever undertaken by the district attorney’s office”). In addition, there was even support from California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, a Democrat.
Community Medical Centers, which has been in ongoing discussions with Tulare Healthcare District to assume management duties at TRMC, also submitted a letter in favor of the funding that would help ease their potential transition into the facility.
Item Set To Be Heard Today …
For the budget item’s initial hearing May 7, four community members, including two district board members, and TRMC’s interim manager accompanied Mathis at the witness table.
The proponents spoke of the necessity of retaining the hospital, arguing that, as one of three hospitals in all of Tulare County, it served a vital need for the county as a whole.
Xavier Avila, one of the board members who spoke at the hearing, brought up the issues at Kaweah Delta Medical Center in Visalia to highlight the acute need in the area.
“Anyone can go to the Kaweah Delta Hospital and see the two tents that are pitched, and see so many people. And I recognize those people,” Avila said. “They’re sick, they’re in pain, they have fevers, they have injuries. And they don’t know when they’re gonna be seen by a doctor — and it’s horrifying to see that.”
Another person who testified, Alex Gutierrez, said he had a positive impression following the hearing and subsequent meetings with legislators.
“We had productive conversations and I thought we had the votes (to pass in the subcommittee),” said Gutierrez, “I thought Assemblyman Arambula would be receptive to our message given the outpouring of community voices and his own medical background.”
With tempered expectations but high hopes, CFHA organized the letter-writing campaign and encouraged district residents to contact legislators any way they could.
“Everyone in the community was anxiously awaiting the vote,” Drilling said.
… But Arambula Held the Proposal
When the agenda for the meeting was published May 23, however, the TRMC funding item was nowhere to be found, meaning it would not be brought to a vote before the committee.
This sort of tactic – in which the committee chair simply refuses to bring the item forward – is fairly common on bills that are opposed by leadership, yet would create uncomfortable votes for members who, in this case, would not want a vote against saving a rural hospital on their records.
Mathis, in a press release, pinned the omission on “Capitol Democrats” who see TRMC as “too big of a risk and gamble to bail out.”
“There are 70,000 people in Tulare who don’t have access to a hospital, and big city politicians don’t seem to care,” Mathis said.
A request for comment from Arambula’s office received no response before this story was published.
Budget Options Remain
According to Mathis’ press release, there are still budget options available to attain funding for TRMC.
When party leaders meet with Gov. Brown to hammer out final details, “there is a chance to receive some of the $22 million.”
“However, the majority party expressed to Mathis that it probably wouldn’t be the whole $22 million,” the statement read.
Gutierrez, while disappointed in the outcome, remained upbeat.
“I was quite upset when I heard the item wasn’t on the agenda, but I still have hope knowing there are still options available,” he said. “Unfortunately, doors keep closing and there are only a few left to try.”
Drilling vowed to keep working to find the funds but said that justice, or at least a fair political process, was denied by the party machinations.
“We don’t feel that Assemblymember Arambula realizes the disappointment and devastation we feel in our community,” said Drilling. “We were not allowed the opportunity to complete the subcommittee process. In this case, politics came before social justice.”
Note: Drew Phelps is an active member of the group supporting the funding measure, Citizens for Hospital Accountability.