The Palm Drive Health Care District board voted unanimously Tuesday night to authorize a Chapter 9 bankruptcy, the first step in a plan urged by management to close the emergency room and cease acute inpatient services at the Sebastopol hospital.
"We're out of money. We can't pay our vendors on a regular basis," said hospital CEO Thomas Harlan. "Given these sets of what I would call alarming and very depressing facts, the chronic and extreme financial distress, we're faced with a position of insolvency."
Members of the public, including many employees, pleaded with the board to reject the proposal to close the emergency room. The board agreed to table the vote until its next meeting on Monday.
"We can put this vote off," said Nancy Dobbs, board member. "But we're just putting off the inevitable. By April 28, we will be out of money."
The board met in emergency session less than a week after Palm Drive warned employees that major layoffs were imminent. At Tuesday's meeting, attended by about 150 people, board members painted a gloomy picture of a hospital that is in imminent danger of having the lights turned off.
They blamed the problems on crippling operating shortfalls caused by a combination of factors, including falling Medicare/Medi-Cal reimbursements, competition from other acute care hospitals, significant loss of patients and the general costs of health care. The board said it had tried over the last few months to come up with a plan to save the emergency room in particular, including hiring the Huron Consulting Group, an outside consultant. But, they said, no plan proved fiscally viable.
"We will not last a month. The vendors will not bring supplies — we won't be here," said Dobbs. "That's how bad it is."
It is unclear what would happen to the hospital if it shut down the emergency room and critical care beds. Under state law, hospitals must have both to qualify for a license that permits it to operate. Hospital officials acknowledged they didn't know if the state would withdraw or suspend Palm Drive's license.
At least one group of local physicians said they were scrambling to find a plan to buy the hospital and reopen it as a critical care/surgical unit. But they warned they may not be able to keep the hospital open if its license is suspended or they are forced to apply for a new one.
"We could continue to do what we do well," said Michael Bollinger, a orthopedic surgeon who said the group was still exploring its options.
"Our plan is to have a hospital status license. Without that we don't have a plan," he said.
Marsha Sue Lustig, a board member, said any idea to rescue the hospital would take months to implement.
"Unfortunately we don't have that," she said. "The reality is that the likelihood of an arrangement coming together in time so that the hospital doesn't have to close on April 28 is almost impossible."
The board authorized Harlan to seek protection from creditors in U.S. Bankruptcy Court with a Chapter 9 filing. The hospital previously filed bankruptcy in 2007 and emerged in 2010 when it sold $11 million in bonds to pay off loans and creditors and underwrite future improvements.
While board members said they hoped the hospital would eventually serve the community again, it would likely look very different than it does today.