This story has been updated to include the comments of EMS Commissioner James Lott
Nearly 200 members of the community participated in a virtual public hearing conducted by the LA County Emergency Medical Services Agency Commission on Wednesday morning to review the proposed closure of Olympia Medical Center scheduled for March 31. Nearly all the public comments at the meeting expressed opposition to the planned closure, including comments from commission members, who voted unanimously to recommend the County Board of Supervisors take action to keep the hospital open during the unprecedented pandemic.
The hearing and the commission’s recommendation are largely pro forma, however. The informational hearing was required by statute to allow public comment, but in his introduction to the meeting, Commission Chair Paul Rodriquez said the commission has no authority to overturn any final decision by Olympia Medical Center. So there appears to be little the county officials can do to force Alecto Healthcare, the current operator of Olympia Medical Center, to stay open. UCLA Health has purchased the property and plans to convert the hospital into a mental health facility, but last week, a spokesman told the Buzz that UCLA is prepared to lease the building back to Alecto to continue operating through the end of the year.
According to people familiar with the transaction, Alecto has been trying to sell Olympia Medical Center for quite some time. The deal with UCLA was announced at the end of December, with a post on the Olympia website and notices posted around the hospital. The apparent lack of transparency was cited several times by members of the public who expressed opposition to the closure, including Jennifer Lemmon, a spokeswoman for the California Nurses Association who represents 200 nurses who work at Olympia Medical Center.
“We are absolutely incensed to completely opposed to this closure,” Lemmon said. “Our members and healthcare workers were shocked to see a posted notice on December 31 when they went to work.” She added that Alecto and UCLA Health have received $27.5 million and $438.5 million in COVID stimulus and advanced medicare payments in 2020. She said both Alecto and UCLA Health have a moral and ethical responsibility to keep the Olympia open during the pandemic. An Emergency Room nurse on staff at Olympia, Shenita Anderson, echoed that sentiment, saying that 40 percent of the patients Olympia serves are black, and many come from nearby nursing homes. Certain that the closure could lead to more deaths, Anderson asked which of her patients might not get treatment during the pandemic if Olympia where to close its doors. Anderson said if Alecto won’t step up to serve the community, then UCLA Health should. Many members of the public echoed her sentiments, including EMS officials. (For even more detail on the public testimony, see this recent story in the Beverly Press.)
UCLA Health did not provide testimony during the hearing, but a spokesman told the Buzz that UCLA Health stands by its earlier statement:
“As healthcare workers who see first-hand the need for medical support services in a city that is surging with COVID-19, we have provided Alecto with the ability to keep Olympia Medical Center’s doors open to help manage the current surge in COVID-19 patients. Additionally, we are encouraged by the ongoing dialogue between Alecto and LA County EMS, including ensuring the hospital is adequately staffed for services. We reiterate our effort to continue providing assistance in services to our collective community of Los Angeles.
In 2021, UCLA Health will be launching an initial planning process for a state-of-the-art major facility renovation of the former Olympia Campus. The initial plans will include exploration of inpatient and outpatient mental health services – a dire and unmet need in Los Angeles County with few and shrinking providers of inpatient care. UCLA Health is committed to providing access to care for patients who need our services. With the addition of this campus, located in the Mid-Wilshire area, we have the ability to expand that access and add hundreds of health care jobs in LA County. This planning process, which will commence soon, will inform key activities including timing. We will provide regular updates to the community along the way.”
Alecto executive Michael Sarrao, Executive Vice President of Olympia Healthcare LLC, the operator of Olympia Medical Center, told the commission that Olympia Medical Center has seen a decline in patient population over the past several years, with declining use of its basic emergency room. So it has determined the hospital simply isn’t competitive with the larger facilities in the area. Sarrao said even though the hospital has 204 beds, it doesn’t staff the hospital to serve all of those beds, and the facility generally has between 60 and 70 patients at a time over the last three years. Recently, though, it has been been seeing more patients, due to COVID, and some patients have been staying longer. In summary, Sarrao said that closing the hospital was a business decision, and that Alecto is following all the procedures required by law for the closure.
Cathy Chidester from the LA County Department of Health Services told the Buzz that the county cannot compel Alecto to keep the hospital open…although there is always the possibility that Alecto could reconsider based on the public and political response. However, Chidester said her office has not heard from Alecto officials as of this time. In its reporting, the Los Angeles Times noted that Alecto has also managed other controversial hospital closings.
Commissioner James Lott told the Buzz that state law simply doesn’t allow them to force Alecto to keep the hospital open.
“Once they decide to close, there’s really nothing we can do about it. We can investigate and use the bully pulpit we have been given but we don’t have the authority to stop the closure of a hospital, ” said Lott who struggles with the timing of the closing during the pandemic,
“Taking one COVID bed offline is problematic,” said Lott. “We are coming out a surge, our third this year, and we don’t want to reverse that by losing capacity.”
Sarrao’s presentation did not specify how many patients at Olympia were COVID patients, but he said the recent increase patient census was due to COVID.
Lott, a former hospital industry executive, wondered if any efforts were made to transfer the Olympia to a county entity that could operate the hospital during the pandemic. While he acknowledged the profitability challenges Alecto faced operating Olympia, which services mostly low income and low pay patients, he thought authorities should look into how the COVID dollars were used and, if any, were paid to the service the hospital’s debt.
Now retired, Lott is a professor in the Public Health department at California State University Los Angeles and told the Buzz he serves on the EMS Commission as an appointee of Supervisor Holly Mitchell. Lott said he has not spoken to Ms. Mitchell about the hearing. We contacted her office for a comment, but have not heard back yet. The Buzz also contact LA City Councilmember Nithya Raman for comment on the issue, but has not yet heard back from her office as well.
For now, the closure of Olympia Medical Center on March 31st appears to be proceeding.
I really liked the LA County Hearing meeting on Wednesday, January 27, 2021, but right now the hospital got many Travel nurses that our cardiology department train them for EKG, so it does not seem that the hospital is closing on end of March I think so. Maybe they need to see how much money they have, and they will say that in later time. I really like this place to keep it’s doors during the COVID-19 pandemic, and closing is the worse idea.