Opponents claim violations of CEQA, health access; Sutter says it met requirements

[caption id="attachment_34895" align="alignright" width="346" caption="An artist’s rendering of the new Sutter Medical Center of Santa Rosa under construction near the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts."][/caption]

SANTA ROSA – Sutter Health and the North Sonoma County Healthcare District recently squared off in front of a Sonoma County judge, each presenting its case as to why or why not Sutter’s forthcoming $284 million hospital north of Santa Rosa is in line with the California Environmental Quality Act and the county Health Care Access Agreement.

The health care district, which oversees Healdsburg District Hospital, is the lead plaintiff among a group suing the county for its approval of the Sutter proposal. They hope to block Sutter’s plan to transfer services from the existing and seismically unsafe Chanate facility to a state-of-the-art new hospital now under construction adjacent to the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts.

The lawsuit takes direct aim at the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors for approving the environmental impact report.

Specifically, plaintiffs say Sutter’s proposals on the new hospital have shifted over the years, to the point that neither the public nor county officials could keep pace.

“The details of the project were in constant flux,” states the legal brief filed by the health care district. “The Sutter portion of the project was substantially modified twice during the course of CEQA review, while the public at large and decision makers tried, sometimes unsuccessfully, to keep up with the shifting project descriptions.”

Sutter countered that the scope of the project shifted as a result of factors beyond its control, such as the federal health care overhaul, or that even if the project was modified, it still held up to the county agreements, which stem from Sutter taking over operations of the county hospital in 1996.

Opponents focus on the shifting number of hospital beds, for example. But Sutter said the number of beds isn’t the most important element.

Opponents “ignore the fact that the EIR analysis is not based on the number of beds,” Sutter said in legal briefs. “Hospitals often have fluctuating numbers of beds that can be used by patients. Indeed, due to strict hospital staffing ratios, the actual number of beds in use is dependent on the available staff.”

Sutter’s original proposed new hospital called for a total 118 beds, with a possible expansion to 170 beds. The Chanate hospital, which must be closed by 2013 per state rules if it is not made seismically safe, has 208 licensed beds.

Eventually, Sutter resubmitted plans for a medical campus that would have included a 70-bed inpatient care hospital along with 28-bed physician-owned hospital that would not be subject to the health care access agreement. Some officials said the hospital was too small. And the physician-owned hospital was scrapped after the federal health overhaul placed strict deadlines for such hospitals that Sutter would not meet.

Sutter then amended the plan to an 82-bed hospital with a possible 27-bed expansion, which is what the Board of Supervisors approved of last August.

But opponents claims the plan still falls short of the Health Care Access Agreement and that the hospital as it is could severely impact district hospitals and the delivery of health care throughout the county.

Sutter has said it is simply moving services from on facility to another, so countywide health care will stay the same.

In addition to the delivery of health care, the new hospital would have an adverse impact on the surrounding environment, opponents say.

Sutter said the CEQA claims raised in legal documents were never presented during public hearings, but rather afterwards, thereby rendering the claims null.

The Sonoma County Department of Health Services had to approve Sutter’s plan before the Board of Supervisors. It did so last July.

Superior Court Judge Rene Chouteau will issue a ruling within the next few months.

The health care district is joined in the suit by the Palm Drive Healthcare District, the California Nurses Association and San Rafael-based anti sprawl group Transportation Solutions.

The health care district is represented by Shute, Mihlay & Weinberger. While the suit is directed at Sonoma County, Sutter is footing the legal cost and is represented by Cox, Castle & Nicholson.

Both firms have offices in San Francisco.

Luther Burbank Memorial Foundation, which owns and operates the Wells Fargo Center, was represented by Bill Carle of Carle, Mackie, Power and Ross in Santa Rosa.