Officials insist Simi hospital isn’t in trouble;

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Facility is in transition, they say

Ventura County Star

Simi Valley Hospital has racked up headlines one after the other over the past six months.

First, Chief Executive Officer Dr. Margaret Peterson abruptly announced her resignation. Then came news the state had halted work on a new patient tower because of quality concerns in December.

Last Friday came the hospital’s unexpected decision to shutter its Behavioral Health Unit in 60 days for lack of patients. Then on Wednesday, the Justice Department announced the hospital had paid $3.7 million to settle allegations false claims were submitted to Medicare.

The confluence of events, which has come at a time of transition, does not mean the hospital is ailing, hospital officials said.

Supporters agreed and urged people to rally around the hospital, but a watchdog group said the situation in Simi Valley is emblematic of healthcare in a state without centralized oversight.

On Thursday, Peterson said she did not see the events as unfavorable. Instead, she saw them as illustrations of the dynamic nature of hospitals.

“Even though they have come together one after the other, they are not related,” Peterson said. “I think the public should be very comfortable; the hospital is committed to quality care.”

Former mayor and hospital board member Bill Davis describes himself as an avid supporter of the hospital who believes residents should contribute to its expansion efforts.

But he said the hospital’s current issues would “probably” make it more challenging to recruit a new chief executive officer.

“It won’t be easy for them,” Davis said. “I hope they are strong. This city deserves and should have a first-class hospital. I think at this point they are working toward that end, but it needs to happen faster.”

News of the fraud settlement hit during the first of two transition weeks for outgoing Peterson and incoming interim chief Terrence Hansen, the former chief executive of another Adventist Health hospital near San Diego. Simi Hospital is part of the Adventist Health network.

Hansen will come out of retirement to temporarily take the helm in Simi on Aug. 1 until a permanent chief is found.

News of the settlement was not a surprise to hospital workers.

Negotiations between the hospital and Justice Department began in 2003 and the settlement was reached at the end of last year.

Along with the fine, the hospital, which has not admitted wrongdoing, agreed to an integrity agreement.

It calls for the hospital to have a local compliance officer, a written code of conduct, written policies and procedures and a disclosure program, according to a copy of the agreement.

Peterson said hospital staff members believed they were working within code regulations during the period investigated — 1993 to 1998.

The staff has received ongoing training on the codes used to designate illnesses on Medicare forms.

“We are not the only hospital” dealing with these issues, hospital spokeswoman Alicia Gonzalez said.

Peterson agreed, saying that hospitals throughout Southern California have shuttered behavioral health institutes.

“We are probably one of the last holdouts,” she said.

If the unit remained open, it would cost the hospital $250,000 this year, officials said.

Insurance companies prefer that the hospital treat patients on an outpatient basis, often declining to pay for inpatient care.

“The problems at Simi Valley Hospital are emblematic of problems across the board in hospitals in California,” said Jerry Flanagan, the healthcare policy director for the Foundation for Taxpayers and Consumer Rights. “The problem in California is we have no central oversight organization.”

Flanagan said patients end up losing as programs close.

Mayor Paul Miller, a current board member, said the hospital’s concerns probably have not dampened the community’s feelings toward the hospital.

“I don’t think any of these issues have anything to do with patient care directly,” Miller said. “It’s not just this hospital that’s had issues.”
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