Sick Economy Leads to Overcrowded SoCal Hospitals

LOS ANGELES -- The economic downturn has caused more unemployed and uninsured people to go to Southland hospitals instead of clinics, putting more stress on already overcrowded facilities, according to a survey released Thursday.

The number of hospital patients was up 4 percent in October 2008 compared to October 2007, according to the survey of 19 public hospitals statewide -- including four in Los Angeles County -- conducted by the California Association of Public Hospitals and Health Systems.

In addition, public hospitals have seen a 10 percent increase in the number of uninsured patients and a 19 percent increase in the number of uninsured patients in emergency rooms, according to the report.

"The numbers tell us what most of us already knew, namely, that as more and more people lost their jobs, they also lost their health insurance or the means to pay for it," said Melissa Stafford Jones, president and CEO of CAPH.

The numbers are only expected to rise as the state's unemployment rate has increased from 8.2 to 9.3 percent from October to December, according to the report.

"If we were to compare data for January 2009 to the same month a year before, I know we would see a larger increase than what our survey revealed," Stafford Jones said. "And I'm afraid this might just be the tip of the iceberg as thousands more people continue to lose their jobs."

The survey included Olive View Medical Center, County-USC Medical Center, Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, and Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center, according to CAPH spokeswoman Amy Weitz.

The report follows concerns voiced by county Supervisor Gloria Molina that County-USC -- housed in a newly built facility with about 200 fewer beds than the old building -- is already operating too close to its maximum capacity.

At Molina's request, the hospital has been reporting occupancy rates since it opened in November.

In January, about 82 percent of its beds were filled, including 95 percent of its medical/surgical beds, according to the latest report.

Meanwhile, the board of supervisors planned to sell Rancho Los Amigos hospital as part of a cost-cutting plan to privatize or close clinics and shift primary care over to privately run nonprofit clinics.

But the board gave Rancho a reprieve earlier this month based on a report from county CEO William Fujioka that predicted the proposed federal economic stimulus package could provide the funding to save it.

The medical center's future remains uncertain.

Stress on the county's already fragile healthcare system increased in 2006 when King-Harbor Hospital in Willowbrook was shut down.

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