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Story Updated: 11:33 a.m. on Thursday, March 3

SC Times logoBy Eric Heinz

After 18 months of efforts to try to keep MemorialCare’s Saddleback Memorial Medical Center open in San Clemente, officials announced Wednesday they will close the campus on May 31.

In a statement released by Saddleback Memorial Medical Center administrator Tony Struthers, he stated the health care provider will continue to examine possibilities of providing urgent care to San Clemente residents, but the hospital services will cease May 31.

“At this point, we will continue to provide ongoing medical and emergency services,” Struthers said in an email Wednesday afternoon, adding the services will continue for at least 90 days.

Struthers said the hospital, located at 654 Camino De Los Mares, will continue to meet with local officials and agencies to plan “a transition of services.”

“This is not a decision we reached quickly,” Struthers stated. “It is the result of many discussions and deliberations. This was not the outcome we had sought or expected. We had hoped the campus could be used to expand health care services in the community. We envisioned a new modern ambulatory center that would better meet the community’s future health care needs and transform the campus into a health care destination.”

MemorialCare officials have said since August 2014 the current hospital model is not feasible to keep open because of declining inpatient numbers, which fund a great portion of the hospital.

Struthers said no decision has been made regarding the sale of the San Clemente Campus.

“At this point we have had some inquiries but nothing beyond that,” he stated in an email.

Originally the hospital came up with proposals to establish a large outpatient urgency care center in the hospital’s place, but that was dismissed by community members as not being adequate medical services for San Clemente.

Officials then made a legislative effort to allow for a free-standing, or “boutique” or “satellite” hospital, with fewer amenities but similar emergency services hospitals offer. This is currently not legal under California law.

Assemblyman Bill Brough and State Sen. Patricia Bates introduced separate bills in their respective houses to try to change that law, but both bills died in committee in January. Following that defeat, the city of San Clemente enacted a zoning ordinance to require the owner of the hospital land to provide emergency services.

“Like many small hospitals across the country, the San Clemente inpatient facility has continued to experience declining volumes,” Struthers said.

Struthers said the hospital was averaging 11.6 inpatients a day before the closure. A total of 16 inpatient surgeries were done in February, less than one per day, and outpatient surgeries totaled 56 in that month.

“Without legislation to allow a Satellite Emergency Department,” Struthers added, “and given this new restrictive rezoning that requires hospital services and a declining census that makes operation of an acute care facility unsustainable, the vision to convert the campus into a modern ambulatory care center cannot now be achieved.”

During various community meetings, many people criticized MemorialCare’s assertions of not being able to continue hospital operations as flawed reasoning, citing the margins of revenue from the hospital’s nonprofit tax forms. Hospital officials countered that the nonprofit margins were combined tax forms and that San Clemente’s population could not support a large hospital facility.

“We are working with our approximately 150 full-time and part-time employees to help them identify other potential employment opportunities within the (MemorialCare) health care system and our sister facilities,” Struthers said. “We hope to place as many employees in other positions within the health system and with other sister facilities.”

The nearest hospitals to San Clemente that provide emergency services are Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo, about 10 miles away on Interstate 5, and MemorialCare’s Laguna Hills location, about 15 miles away on I-5.

In a joint statement, Bates and Brough stated they were disappointed with the hospital’s decision.

“This closure is a symptom of a much larger problem in California’s health care sector that the Legislature must address,” the statement read. “Unless action is taken, we could see more emergency rooms close throughout the state due to the financial and regulatory challenges hospitals are facing.”

Both Brough and Bates said they will pursue further options to provide health care in South Orange County.

“We are considering all options and are consulting with community members to find a realistic solution that works for the region,” the statement read.

In a statement, Gus Gialamas, president of Save San Clemente Hospital Foundation, said, “12,000 people have signed petitions to save the hospital, 4 City Councils have voted the same way, MemorialCare themselves said they wanted to maintain emergency services, yet they will close our only hospital costing lives, health care and jobs in our community.”

The foundation members said they intend to protest the hospital closure at noon on Wednesday, March 9.

The San Clemente Hospital was built in 1971 and at one point provided more than 105 beds. Today, it provides 73 beds.

Click to Read Full Hospital Statement

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