It has been 90 days since the Long Beach City Council approved an exclusive negotiating agreement to have a for-profit partnership take over the ground lease for Community Hospital.

According to John Keisler, director of the city's Economic and Property Development Department, the talks are "where they need to be." Keisler and the group Molina, Wu, Network LLC (MWN) have another 90 days before they have to ask for an extension, and MWN has targeted January to reopen the hospital.

There are a number of complications in both the talks and the attempt to reopen the hospital, though. One key is a state requirement to have a plan in place to deal with new earthquake-proof regulations by mid-2019.

Now, a feasibility study has been completed showing how required services could be consolidated in the "heritage" building that is the core of Community. That would allow the emergency room, which is on the same side of an earthquake fault as that building, to reopen.

However, that means a second central HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) plant would have to be built to serve the heritage building. And ultimately, that would support a much smaller hospital with 40 to 45 beds instead of the 158 beds Community is licensed to operate.

"I can't get into numbers, but I will say it is expensive," Keisler said Monday. "That is what we're negotiating an debating about now — how to pay those costs… Reopening is going to be expensive. The city paid for the feasibility study, which was about $300,000… I can say that MWN has asked for some public participation (help paying for the retrofit). That's what is making it a bit more complicated."

Keisler said $150,000 for the feasibility study came from Fourth District Daryl Supernaw's budget, with the rest coming from the City Manager's Department budget. He said he hoped to bring a tentative financing approach to the City Council later this month in closed session.

"The city has been incredibly good to work with," said John Molina, who is the MWN spokesman. He and his brother J. Mario Molina are the Molina in the partnership. "They are definitely problem solvers. We're working on a couple of tracks… We want to see what can be done and how to pay for it."

Molina said that the heritage building could handle 40 to 45 beds. Another component of the conversation is what to do with the rest of the campus at Termino Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway, where current buildings could not house bed-ridden patients. One option would reopen a behavioral health (psychology) department, which had 28 beds before the closure. 

Another complication, Keisler said, is that MWN wants to start operations under the license held by the previous operator, MemorialCare. That means when the hospital reopens, it has to be staffed to serve all 158 beds — even though most of those beds cannot be used.

Supernaw has scheduled a meeting in two weeks — Tuesday, Oct. 16 — to give residents an update on negotiations. There is no council meeting that night. The meeting is from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Recreation Park Golf Course Clubhouse, 5001 Deukmejian Dr.

"It will be the residents' opportunity to express their vision on what should be included with the ER and acute care hospital," Supernaw wrote in his newsletter. "The operator of the new hospital, Molina Wu Network, will provide a presentation and gather input from the audience."

How We Got Here

Officials at MemorialCare, the Southern California medical nonprofit that also operates Long Beach Memorial Medical Center and Miller Women's and Children's Hospital, notified the city last November that they would close Community because it was not economically feasible to meet those seismic standards. The hospital and its emergency department closed July 3.

That emergency room was the only acute care facility in East Long Beach. City officials and the Long Beach Community Hospital Foundation mobilized earlier this year to find an operator to keep it open.

While the hospital closed, a request for proposals to take the lease over garnered interest. Initially there were five responses, but the MWN proposal quickly rose to the top.

The Molinas helped build Molina Healthcare to a regional power before leaving the company last year at the request of the board. Wu is  Dr. Jonathan Wu, the principal of AHMC Healthcare Inc. AHMC, a for-profit corporation, which currently operates seven hospitals in Southern California. Network is Medical Network Inc., a contract fulfillment firm. 

After MWN received the exclusive right to negotiate, the principals named a CEO for their iteration of Community Hospital — Virg Narbutas. Narbutas is now in an office on the hospital grounds and is going through everything that must be done before reopening, Molina said.

Harry Saltzgaver can be reached at hsalt@gazettes.com.

Harry has been executive editor of Gazette Newspapers for more than 26 years. He has been in the newspaper business for more than 35 years, with experience on both weekly and metropolitan daily papers in Colorado and California.

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