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Articles / 2008

Ojai Valley hospital reinvigorated merger with CMH aids facility, region

By Michelle L. Klampe
Ventura County Star
Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Three years ago, Ojai Valley Community Hospital was struggling financially, threatening the work Dr. Martin Pops and other community leaders had done to save the facility from closure or takeover by yet another for-profit corporation.

Then Community Memorial Hospital President and CEO Gary Wilde approached Pops and other members of the hospital's board about a possible merger.

"We thought he'd been sent by one of the archangels," Pops said. "Many rural hospitals were either losing money or closing."

The merger has breathed new life into the 37-bed hospital and its 66-bed skilled nursing center. Long-delayed maintenance is finally getting tackled, construction on a new and expanded emergency room is expected to begin later this year, and just last month, the hospital installed a Picture, Archiving and Collection (PAC) system to modernize the radiology department and make reviewing X-rays, CT scans and other tests easier.

Community Memorial Health System, the parent organization created after the merger of the two hospitals, has poured about $6 million into the hospital, adding, among other things, new pipes and a long-overdue roof to replace the old, leaky one, said Wilde.

The hospital found ways to save about $2 million a year by consolidating some departments and by taking advantage of CMH's eligibility for better pricing on hospital supplies. In 2006, the hospital made a small profit, and in 2007, the hospital broke even or possibly "a little better," Wilde said.

Though the hospital has not brought a lot of cash, the deal made sense to CMH because the hospital's mission is to serve its community, and Ojai has long been considered part of that community, Wilde said.

"There's not a financial advantage or a strategic advantage," he said. "It was a mission advantage, and that's where we live."

The Ojai Valley community also has rallied to support the facility, raising millions through the Ojai Valley Community Hospital Foundation. The two largest donations, for $500,000 each, will help pay for the PAC system and the emergency room construction. Other money was raised to make over several patient rooms with new flooring and furnishings, refurbish the landscaping and even bring in local artists' work.

Martin Pops' wife, Barbara Pops, now chairs the hospital foundation board; the organization puts on two community fundraising events and makes two appeals each year to hospital supporters. In 2007, 764 individuals made donations to the foundation, she said. Including the $500,000 PAC donation, the foundation raised about $950,000 last year.

"One of the first things we did," she said, "was make it clear that any funds we raised in Ojai would stay in Ojai."

When the two hospitals' merger was approved in March 2005, the California Attorney General's office required CMH to continue offering services such as 24-hour emergency care in Ojai for several years. Some of those requirements are nearing expiration now, but CMH officials have no plans to reduce services at the Ojai hospital, Wilde said.

The estimated $1.5 million investment to build a new ER is one sign of that, he said. Hospital officials hope construction on the project, which will double the number of ER beds from three to six, add a separate ambulance entrance and a waiting area, and quadruple the size of the department overall, will begin by mid-year and be complete about nine months later. The hospital also is making plans for a major seismic upgrade in the next few years, Wilde said.

"I don't think the (CMH) board is thinking at all short-term," he said. "It's all long-term."

Any concern that CMH might reduce services or shutter the hospital has gone unfounded, said Martin Pops, who now serves on the CMH board of directors as its vice chairman.

"There were always some doubting Thomases, but as far as I'm concerned, that's all evaporated," he said. "It's a feel-good reaction in the community."

Ojai and CMH officials hope more local residents will choose Ojai as their hospital, both in emergencies, such as appendicitis or a broken ankle, and for routine procedures such as blood work, mammograms or colonoscopies.

People who now bypass Ojai for other, larger hospitals' emergency rooms can likely be seen more quickly in Ojai, hospital officials said.

Patients who need services not available in Ojai can then be transferred to CMH, with their lab work, X-rays or other information already in the larger hospital's computer system.

In 2007, the second full year of operation under the merger, Ojai recorded 11,042 hospital admissions, 7,902 emergency room visits, 33,913 outpatient visits and 658 surgeries. Imaging studies such as MRIs, outpatient visits, even the number of days a patient stays in the hospital, all are on the rise, Wilde said.

"These are positive indications the community is supporting the hospital more," he said. "We're trying to convey to them, Don't bypass us.'"

The hospital's newfound stability also has helped recruit new employees to the hospital and new physicians to the community, hospital officials said.

"The hospital is getting straight, and everybody is hopeful about the future," said Dr. Dan Sommer, chief of staff at the hospital. "There's really no downside as far as the medical staff is concerned."