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Kaweah Delta's Future Hangs On Tuesday Vote

Courtesy Kaweah Delta Health Care District.
Artist's rendering of the proposed new acute care hospital

Today is the deadline for residents in Visalia to have their ballots postmarked in a big vote that could determine the future of the Kaweah Delta Hospital. The hospital is asking the community to tax itself to support a new acute care wing. But the push has generated opposition in the community and from the head of a neighboring hospital.

First, a bit of background, state law requires that every hospital be hardened against earthquakes by 2030.

Kaweah Delta Hospital says that means they need to fully replace their existing five-decade old main building with a modern, earthquake-resistant one.

Hospital CEO Lindsay Mann says they are asking voters to approve a bond for more than $300 million dollars, called 'Measure H'.

He says it is the smartest way to raise the money needed to construct a comprehensive replacement hospital before their existing building is no longer compliant.

“It would allow the community to ask itself one question: how important is health care in Visalia and Tulare County. And how important do we feel it is to participate in funding the creation of new acute care hospital to replace the 273 beds that will be lost,” Mann says.

Kaweah Delta is putting up around $200 million of its own money. That’s the most it statutorily can.

That brings the total cost of the project to around a $500 million dollars.

The measure H property tax would amount to just over $48 per $100,000 of property value over the life of the bond.

Still, Mann says that without this money the community stands to lose significant hospital bed capacity and medical services…

“In fact, Kaweah Delta is the only hospital in Tulare and Kings County that has cardiac surgery, neurosurgery, mental health and rehabilitation services. We have very high caliber cancer services. NICU services,” Mann says.

Mann has a tough row to hoe.

The bond measure must pass with a two-thirds majority. Tough under any circumstances, let alone one where the hospital has been accused of trying to slip the measure through on a mail-only standalone ballot.

57-thousand ballots have been mailed out and must be postmarked for return today.

But the size and scope of the plans have drawn pushback from the community and from the head of a nearby hospital.

“You could be the best stage coach factory in the world but it won’t do you much good if everybody is going to cars,” Says Dr. Benny Benzeevi is the chairman of Healthcare Conglomerate Associates, which manages the neighboring Tulare Regional Medical Center in the city of Tulare.

Benzeevi contends building a flashy new hospital with all the bells and whistles is looking backward rather than toward a new health care environment.

“The model of the future looks to building healthier populations with the weight of the emphasis on prevention rather than intervention,” Benzeevi says.

Benzeevi himself even contributed 38-thousand dollars to lobby against measure H, but he says his opposition is because he doubts Kaweah Delta’s plans, not because of competition between the facilities.

It should be noted that later this year Tulare Regional will also seek a community bond, albeit for a much lower amount of about 55-million.

A community has also formed on Facebook to oppose the bond measure called “Visalia No on Measure H”.

One of the group’s leaders, Nevin House, acknowledges that Kaweah needs a new building but dislikes how they are seeking the funding.

“We have a problem with the way that Kaweah Delta is wanting to finance it on the backs of the tax payers. There are multiple other options many of which are being used by other hospitals in California to meet the requirements of earthquake safety,” House says.

For example, the hospital could find a partner, restructure itself to borrow more money, or sell off non-essential assets like a retirement home or dialysis centers.

It’s not clear what Kaweah will do next should the bond fail. Its CEO remains optimistic that voters in the area will support them.

If a voter has lost their ballot or wants to vote in person, they can do so at the Tulare County Registrar of Voters in Visalia Tuesday May 3rd.

Jeffrey Hess is a reporter and Morning Edition news host for Valley Public Radio. Jeffrey was born and raised in a small town in rural southeast Ohio. After graduating from Otterbein University in Columbus, Ohio with a communications degree, Jeffrey embarked on a radio career. After brief stops at stations in Ohio and Texas, and not so brief stops in Florida and Mississippi, Jeffrey and his new wife Shivon are happy to be part Valley Public Radio.