A public forum at the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) fourth annual Health Fair sparked debate about San Benito County’s health care system, with a focus on Hazel Hawkins Hospital.
Among the issues brought up at the Sept. 15 forum were the number of clinics the hospital operates, its possible partnership with Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital and hiring local doctors versus out-of-towners. On Sept. 21, Hazel Hawkins announced an official partnership would not happen.
Physician Sylvia Morgan said Hazel Hawkins was the only district hospital in the state operating in the black 20 years ago. Then, she continued, the hospital began to add clinics, which added costs for staffing and office space.
“There is no reason to have five clinics within 15 miles, because even San Juan Bautista is close," she said. Morgan added that the hospital has spread itself thin by having to hire doctors to run clinics that it can’t afford.
Morgan later said that it costs more to hire out-of-town doctors, and patients would be referred to do their procedures and follow-ups out of town.
“When I came here we all volunteered for the clinic,” she said. “We all volunteered as family physicians or [obstetricians] because we cared. When you start hiring doctors that don’t have their own practices here, that don’t have their own patients here, that don’t live within the community, they don’t care about the community.”
Physician Mohammad Barra echoed Morgan’s point about hiring physicians who can become part of the community.
“Maybe things have changed, but it’s worth a try,” Barra said. “Hire physicians who will come and set up private practice here because people who do private practice, the hospital system gains a lot more from them than they give back.”
Barra said those doctors would have their own office, pay their own rent, have their own healthcare insurance and pay their own practice while bringing patients to the hospital to use its services. He also said there will always be the need to hire specialists, but that can be done part-time.
Responding to these concerns, Hazel Hawkins Hospital marketing director Frankie Gallagher said the clinics are what allows the hospital to make money. She said the number of patients seen in the clinics increases annually and that the hospital places clinics where the public needs them.
Ariel Hurtado, a physician and Hazel Hawkins Hospital board member, identified three issues related to Morgan’s statement: 1) physician involvement in the hospital, which he called crucial because they would fight a little harder for the cause than those hired from out of town; 2) the need to look into the finances of each clinic; and 3) having local people keep an eye on all parts of the hospital’s operation.
Gallagher replied that the public has access to the hospital’s financial reports and that they are audited.
Several members of the public, including Frank Barragan, a candidate for San Benito Health Care District (the hospital board) Zone 2 asked Gallagher about the benefits to the hospital and community of a possible partnership with Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital.
Gallagher said Hazel Hawkins is looking into making some of Salinas Valley’s specialists and other services available to San Benito County residents. She cited some services that Hazel Hawkins does not offer but Salinas Valley does, including cardiothoracic surgery and trauma.
However, Gallagher warned that it’s too early to say what the agreement would look like. She said there is a group of consultants, hired by Salinas Valley, working on a report on needs and that the hospital expects to receive the report at the end of September or early October. She emphasized that the agreement would be to collaborate, not a purchase or merger.
Physician Nazhat Parveen Sharma said before Hazel Hawkins began contemplating a partnership, it had to inform the community about its intention. She acknowledged that the hospital informed some members of the community like physicians, foundation members, nurses and real estate agents. However, she said, those members do not represent her community, which is San Juan Bautista residents and Westside Hollister residents.
“The community needs to understand this hospital belongs to them,” Sharma said. “It does not belong to the administrators, it does not belong to the physicians, it does not belong to the board of directors. The community has put the board of directors there and the board of directors are accountable to us as the community.”
Sharma recalled how physicians and Hazel Hawkins Hospital worked together 26 years ago to maintain operations. She said the hospital was more than $5 million in debt and began to break even after three years.
Sharma asked Gallagher why the hospital does not emulate the San Benito Health Foundation in charging $25 for patients who do not have health insurance. She said the clinic gets reimbursed by the state, so it doesn’t lose money and offers affordable care.
Sharma finished by noting that Mary Ann Barragan’s $1 million donation in January 2016 for The Barragan Family Diabetes Center stipulated that the hospital was required to see diabetic patients for free, which she said the hospital was not doing.
Another topic addressed briefly was the need for more mental health services in the county.
“Out of the three counties, Santa Cruz County, Monterey County and San Benito County, we have the least availability of any mental health services,” Barra said. “Psychologists, psychiatrists, even private practitioners.”