SAN PABLO -- Nurses, doctors, patients and community members sued in federal court Tuesday seeking to stop the possible closure or downsizing of West Contra Costa's only public hospital, which is deep in the red.
A U.S. District Court judge in San Francisco denied a motion for a temporary restraining order to stop ambulance diversions from Doctors Medical Center but set an Aug. 27 court date to hear the case.
"The health and very lives of residents of West Contra Costa County, many of them indigent and suffering from disabilities and disproportionately African-Americans and senior citizens, hang in the balance," according to the motion filed by Oakland attorney Pamela Price.
The mounting uncertainty at the hospital has helped drive away at least 80 workers, more than 10 percent of staff, from the hospital, which last week began diverting some patients with heart attacks and other critical cases to hospitals farther away because of staffing shortfalls.
The suit alleges that reducing services or closing the hospital violates the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Age Discrimination Act of 1975 with regard to seniors because of the disproportionate impact on minorities, seniors and those with disabilities.
The California Nurses Association and National Nurses United, unions that represent many of the nurses at DMC, said in a news release that the county Board of Supervisors has a "legal and moral obligation to assume operation of DMC and fully integrate it into the existing Contra Costa County health system."
"The initial complaint will seek to stop the diversion of ambulances and particularly ambulances with patients who have serious heart attacks and require the lifesaving measures DMC is capable of (treating) with its procedures," according to the release.
Although federal Judge William Orrick denied the temporary restraining order, he said the matter was urgent and deserved a full hearing, according to CNA/NNU spokeswoman Liz Jacobs.
"This was a partial victory," Jacobs said. "The fight goes on."
DMC is burdened by a patient mix dominated by Medi-Cal and Medicare patients, resulting in low reimbursement rates, and is a district hospital, meaning it is not subsidized by the county. After approving two parcel taxes in the past decade, voters rejected a $20 million tax measure this year, leaving the hospital with an $18 million annual deficit.
Dr. William Walker, county health services director, has said an average of 22 emergency ambulances had come to DMC every day, with more than four critical care transports, many of which are heart attacks and strokes. Those patients are now being taken to nearby hospitals.
The suit names Contra Costa County and the West Contra Costa Healthcare District, along with each county supervisor, Walker and Healthcare District Chairman Eric Zell as defendants. Neither Zell nor Walker could be reached immediately for comment.
Advocates say the county should take over the hospital and subsidize it, but county officials say their budget is already stretched too thin.
Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/sfbaynewsrogers.