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Wednesday, Dec 12 2012 11:00 PM

Local medical providers must step up for KMC

By The Bakersfield Californian

It's beyond disheartening that no local hospitals or health care providers except Clinica Sierra Vista have stepped forward thus far to help keep Kern Medical Center's critical family medicine residency program alive. This failure cuts straight to the problem with our health care system today: It's so partitioned among competing entities that it fails to achieve the goal of improving overall health care delivery for everyone.

When KMC CEO Paul Hensler proposed ending the hospital's family medicine residency program earlier this year, the medical community was up in arms. The program is a key supplier of primary care physicians in Kern County, which has a dire shortage of them. KMC's residency program provides a vital antidote to this shortage because when physicians are trained locally, many stay and work locally.

To keep the program alive, one idea proposed was to emulate a Modesto consortium of local health care providers and hospitals that has helped shoulder costs. But as Hensler told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, no one in the local community -- except Clinica Sierra Vista, a largely government-funded group -- has responded to requests to help the program in truly meaningful ways. That response is downright pitiful. So are the excuses.

Kaiser Permanente acted coy, with a spokeswoman telling The Californian this week that no request for a meeting came through her department -- and that she did offer to facilitate a meeting between KMC's consultant and Kaiser. Hearing of that answer, the consultant forwarded The Californian an email that she had received from the spokeswoman saying flat out that Kaiser couldn't provide any funding for the project. This, despite the fact Kaiser has probably benefited more than any other local group from the program. Kaiser employs one-third (10) of the residency program graduates between 2000 and 2011 who opted to stay and work in Bakersfield.

Mercy Hospitals says it never received an official request for financial help from the county. The county's consultant said no official request was sent but an invitation to the company's representatives to attend a meeting to discuss the consortium idea was. No one from Mercy Hospitals showed up. And San Joaquin Community Hospital concluded the residency program wasn't a good fit for its facilities and suggested KMC look for ways to get more money from the government. For a hospital that benefits enormously from federal tax-exempt status (on the promise that hospitals provide a community benefit), that's quite a way to brush off a request for help.

Given these unfortunate responses, it seems more government funding might be the best option. By partnering with Clinica Sierra Vista, which receives federal funding to provide health care to poor and underserved communities, the residency program could receive higher reimbursement rates than it does now.

Supervisors have asked KMC officials to reach out to local health groups again. We hope this time those groups change their tune. They should be willing, and enthusiastically so, to save a program that this community so badly needs. It's hard to imagine that between new burn units and cancer centers, flashy marketing campaigns and naming rights for local ice rinks, there's not some money to be spared somewhere in the system for a family doctor training program that enhances the quality of the entire local medical network.

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