North Bay Business Journal

Wednesday, September 29, 2010, 8:56 am

Bollinger: Sutter suit pits public entities, raises specter of CEQA


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    Sonoma County taxpayers should be happy to know they can now witness one taxpayer-funded entity suing another taxpayer-funded entity.

    Oh. And if the highly questionable suit is somehow successful, it would scuttle a $284 million investment in the community, cost many hundreds of jobs and possibly cause thousands of low- income adults and children to scramble to find health care.

    But, then, lawsuits are often not about what makes sense, and the last-ditch effort to convince a local judge to stop construction of the new Sutter Medical Center of Santa Rosa certainly isn’t.

    Last week, the North Sonoma County Healthcare District, which operates Healdsburg hospital, sued to stop the Sutter medical center project just under construction next to the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts.

    The health care district claims the county of Sonoma and a unanimous Board of Supervisors violated the California Environmental Quality Act when it approved the Sutter hospital environmental impact report that was years in preparation and subject to exhaustive analysis and public discussion.

    CEQA, as builders and entrepreneurs throughout California know all too well, is the last refuge of anyone who wants to stop anything for any reason. The law is like a piece of modern art, open to interpretation, and litigants know some judges are all too happy to oblige.

    The Healdsburg district’s partners in the suit – and one that isn’t – speak volumes. In addition to long-time opponent of Sutter, Palm Drive Health Care District, it is joined by a San Rafael public transit advocacy group that goes by the cryptic name of the Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund. Apparently the latter is very concerned about traffic patterns in Sonoma County.

    Also joining the suit is the California Nurses Association which, more than anything, just loathes Sutter Health.

    Who is not joining the suit is just as interesting and that would include the Sierra Club, which vocally opposed the hospital project and rarely passes up an opportunity to use CEQA as a legal weapon. One has to wonder why it took a pass this time.

    So there it is. Two publicly funded health care districts – with Palm Drive just recently emerging from bankruptcy – an out-of-county public transit advocacy group and a big statewide  union suing the county of Sonoma, which is still staggering from a $61 million deficit.

    The Healdsburg district also claims the environmental impact report failed to “analyze the substantial possibility that the project will result in downsizing or closure of public ‘district’ hospitals.”

    Yet Sonoma County’s small district hospitals have managed to stay afloat while Sutter has been operating a money-losing hospital that is twice the size of the new one and only a few miles away on Chanate Road. Meanwhile, Sutter does not operate in either of the districts. And it has a much broader mandate than the district hospitals in that it must provide high-level, acute care and provide services to low-income and uninsured residents across Sonoma County.

    Ironically, even when Sutter, which estimates it has lost $250 million on its hospital since coming to Sonoma County in the 1990s, tried just a few years ago to exit the market and merge its operations with St. Joseph Health System, it faced a barrage of opposition.

    What would be truly tragic is if this suit results in Sutter being forced to abandon or delay not just the new project, but the existing Chanate hospital. As is widely known, Sutter is racing against a deadline to show substantial progress on the new hospital or possibly be held in violation of state-mandated seismic requirements.

    This suit poses a new risk that Sutter could miss that deadline, which could have dire and totally unnecessary consequences to the health care system that would serve no one.

    The best thing that could happen would be an early and speedy end to the whole affair so that Sutter can give Sonoma County the modern medical facilities it believes it deserves.


    Brad Bollinger is Business Journal editor in chief and associate publisher. He can be reached at 707-521-4251 or bbollinger@busjrnl.com.

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    1. September 29, 2010, 8:05 pm

      by shannon


      You’ve done a wonderful job writing about this spiteful lawsuit. My husband was at Healdsburg hospital’s board meeting tonight, to voice his objections, regarding the lawsuit. The board members went straight to a vote, without discussion.

      As a Healdsburg homeowner, paying a bond every year to keep the hospital’s doors open, I would have hoped Healdsburg District Hospital would spend our money wisely. This lawsuit is ridiculous and an enormous waste of time and money.

      Thank you for writing about this absurd lawsuit, funded by Northern Sonoma County property owners, you’ve done a brilliant job.


    2. September 30, 2010, 1:20 pm

      by Andy

      Brad, This lawsuit appears to be a weak and thinly veiled attempt to stop a competitor hospital from modernizing its facilities. Unfortunately, small district hospitals and independent medical practices in the area do have much to fear from Sutter. Sutter administrators for years have stated their disdain for Healdsburg and Sebastopol’s small hospitals and surrounding medical communities. The reason for the new hospital location is precisely to expand their business influence “up the corridor” of highway 101. Sutter has established a pattern of buying out private practices in Healdsburg, Windsor, and elsewhere, then either closing them or, more recently, relocating them to their large central office building on the north end of Santa Rosa. Patients with certain Sutter insurance plans are not allowed to go to Healdsburg’s medical laboratory or have procedures done at Healdsburg’s hospital.

      In other words, Sutter has been pursuing a business strategy of soaking up as much of the non-Kaiser medical community (and their patients) as possible. Regardless of ethical concerns, this does in fact pose a serious risk to the availability of health care access and choice for patients living in Santa Rosa’s surrounding small communities.

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