Contra Costa Times editorial: Exorbitant West Contra Costa hospital tax won't solve the problem

Contra Costa Times editorial © 2014 Bay Area News Group
Posted: 02/04/2014

The issue is not whether West Contra Costa residents should try to keep the region's busiest emergency room open -- the question is, at what cost?

The West Contra Costa Healthcare District is asking voters to approve another property tax to rescue Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo. This one would more than triple the current charge for the typical homeowner, bringing the total to $309 a year.

This would be a permanent tax, with no sunset, even if the hospital merges with, or is acquired by, another health care system. Indeed, the tax is intended solely to bolster the hospital's cash flow to make it a more attractive takeover target.

This isn't the solution -- not at this price. It's throwing good money after bad.
DMC is the only public hospital serving West Contra Costa County and faces possible closure due to a $16 million budget deficit this year. More than 40,000 patients visit DMC's emergency room annually. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area New Group)

This is the third time hospital officials have gone to the tax well. In 2004, voters approved a $52 parcel tax. In 2011, with our support, hospital officials convinced voters to add another $47, for a total of $99.

Now, in a mail-in ballot scheduled for May, comes a proposal for a 14-cent-per-square-foot tax. Fourteen cents doesn't sound like much until you do the math. For a 1,500-square-foot home, that's another $210 per year, more than twice the previous two taxes combined.

In 2011, we urged district officials to work quickly to find a permanent solution before this year, when projections showed the district would run out of money.

That day has come. There has been no progress in 2 1/2 years. District officials are still talking about the savior hospital with which it can merge. Meanwhile, it's hemorrhaging money and going deeper into debt.

The hospital now loses roughly $20 million a year, even with the two current tax measures. Worse, to keep the hospital afloat since 2011, the district borrowed $40 million. The money's gone, but the loan won't be paid off until 2042.

It's time for district residents to cut their losses. Even if the district finds a partner, it would have to go back to voters again for another tax to fund construction of a new hospital because the current one is not earthquake safe.

Most of the hospital's services can be provided elsewhere. The concern -- and it's a big one -- is the loss of the emergency room. Without it, residents will be forced to drive farther when they need lifesaving help.

They'll wind up at other facilities that, like Doctors Medical Center currently, must, and should, accept them, regardless of their ability to pay. Maybe then those hospitals will cooperate in finding a long-term, cost-effective solution rather than continuing to ignore the problem.