April 21, 2006

Study to determine health needs of region

By José A. Álvarez

Six months ago, Ben Medina had to be rushed to the University of California San Diego trauma center after a major car accident. The center had no more room and Medina, from National City, was originally turned away. After coaxing from paramedics and given the severity of his injuries, Medina was accepted but had to spend the weekend on a gurney because the hospital had no beds available and he could not be admitted.

“The place was so full that I could not get a bed the entire weekend, then moving the hospital from an area where it’s most needed would be a big mistake,” said Medina, adding that the pleading from the paramedics “saved my life.”

The pending closure of UCSD’s hospital in Hillcrest and the possible implications that the moving of other acute care programs to its hospital in La Jolla is what brought Medina to a town hall meeting in Chula Vista, one of several that have taken place throughout San Diego County to determine the future healthcare needs of the region.

Initiated by Supervisors Greg Cox and Ron Roberts, the Healthcare Safety Net Study is expected to determine the resources required to meet the community’s demand for healthcare services.

“The study will take a look at what we can expect five to ten years from now,” Cox told a crown of about 30 people. While the meeting had been organized “specifically to hear the concerns of residents” of the South Bay, most of the forum attendees were healthcare providers and representatives of The Abaris Group, the consulting firm which is conducting the study. “The study will take a look at the challenges that having a healthy community represent…and plan for the services that we will need in the future.”

The six-month, $600,000 project—funded by the County and the California Endowment—is expected to present an independent and comprehensive assessment of the long-range needs of the healthcare safety net serving of San Diego County residents. The study will encompass all areas of healthcare, including mental health, substance abuse, and HIV/AIDS. In addition to the town hall meetings, project coordinators have been interviewing healthcare providers or “stakeholders” and conducting focus groups.

“It’s a large study to predict what’s going to happen,” said Michael Williams, President of The Abaris Group and the leader of a team of 15 people—researchers, statisticians, demographers, epidemiologists, etc.—who are working on the project. “It’s important for the community to take a look at the current capacity… (and) what is the demand going to be in the future, determine if there are going to be gaps and how do we breach them.”

For José Preciado of the South Bay Forum, the main concern is the amount of resources the county dedicates to healthcare. He urged Cox for additional funding, especially for the South County region.

“We want to advice you that there isn’t enough funds to deal with the issues,” said Preciado. “Every time my neighbor does-n’t get treated, it affects me…It affects all of us whether we’re millionaires or whether we’re poor…These are life issues, we cannot save a buck.”

It is expected that by the year 2030, the County will see its population grow to more than 4 million people and the South County region is anticipated to be a big part of that growth. It is estimated that about 500,000 countywide lack health insurance and thousands more are underinsured.

Cox made no promises for additional funding in the near future and said that “the study will help us see where we have those mind-blowing gaps” and that it will help to “level” the playing field.

“It should make no difference where you live in the county,” Cox responded. “You should have access to affordable healthcare.”

Present at the community forum was Dr. Thomas Mc-Afee, UCSD’s physician in chief. He was there to answer questions about UCSD’s future plans to move its hospital. He explained that their hospital is not county-funded and that their financial situation is similar to that of the other hospitals in the area.

“It’s our response to the business reality that we’re facing. We want to make sure that we stay in business,” said Dr. McAfee, adding that “we welcome the study.”

Preliminary results of the study should be available in June, at which time the findings will be announced to the public and community forums will be taking place. The full study should be completed by September. More information on the study can be found at www.abarisgroup.com under Project Sites. Non-English speakers can get more info at (888) 367-0911.

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