Thanks to a grassroots campaign to save it, Marina del Rey’s community hospital is planning for growth under Cedars-Sinai

By Gary Walker

Save Our Marina del Rey Hospital organizer Julie Inouye and husband Dr. Michael Rubottom were among key players in a grassroots campaign to save the hospital from becoming a hotel.
Photos by Shilah Montiel

Marina del Rey’s community hospital turns 50 this year — a milestone birthday in more ways than one. Having survived several ownership changes and an attempt to convert the property into a hotel, what’s now Cedars-Sinai Marina del Rey Hospital is ready to launch an ambitious expansion project to increase the scope and volume of medical services.

Construction breaking ground next year will create a brand new nine-story hospital building facing Lincoln Boulevard, allowing the existing hospital building (which will eventually be demolished and replaced with a parking lot) to remain fully operational during up to five years of construction.

The new main hospital building will be 200,000 square feet larger than the current 96,000-square-foot structure, increasing capacity from 133 beds to as many as 160 and expanding the number of operating rooms from six to 10. Enhanced diagnostic and treatment facilities include catheterization and gastroenterology labs, as well as interventional procedure suites for complex cases.

“Access to high-quality health care is so important,” Cedars-Sinai Vice President of Operations and Chief Nursing Officer Joanne Laguna-Kennedy said. “We need to bring the high-tech capabilities of an academic medical center into the community setting so we can diagnose and treat acute medical emergencies, like acute cardiac events and strokes, where a rapid response is critical to saving lives.”

Cedars-Sinai purchased the formerly independent Marina Del Rey Hospital four years ago — making investment in hospital infrastructure possible at a time when increased operational costs have triggered a national wave of corporate consolidation throughout the health care industry.

“In today’s world it’s increasingly difficult for independent hospitals to be able to stay open, for a variety of reasons. We’re often seeing these smaller organizations joining with larger institutions in order to keep their doors open. An affiliation with an organization like Cedars allows them to be able to make sure that health care is available in these communities,” California Hospital Association President Jan Emerson-Shea said.

Meanwhile, the need for health care has only increased in many communities. In 2008, Marina Del Rey Hospital logged 22,479 visits to its emergency department. In 2018, Cedars-Sinai Marina del Rey Hospital saw 34,220 emergency department visits — an increase of nearly 55%.

It’s also worth considering that since 2008 there has been a significant national increase in patient reliance on urgent care centers to treat less serious injuries and illnesses that once clogged hospital emergency rooms. In the past four years, Cedars-Sinai has opened two new urgent care centers in the area — one in Culver City in 2015, and another in the Runway at Playa Vista complex two years ago.

All of those patients might have been forced to travel outside the community for care if not for the efforts of small band of local activists who fought to stop the closure of the hospital more than 15 years ago.

‘Life and Death’

In 2001, Tenet Healthcare bought what was then called Daniel Freeman Marina Hospital, and just six months later word spread that Tenet planned to sell off the property, triggering shock and outrage throughout the community.

“It was literally a fight over life and death,” said Julie Inouye, a longtime community activist and Playa del Rey resident who is married to Dr. Michael Rubottom, an internist at Cedars-Sinai Marina del Rey Hospital.

Tenet officials initially denied wanting to sell the hospital (“Why would we invest $55 million just to close it? It doesn’t make sense,” a spokesman told the Los Angeles Times), but finally confirmed that Daniel Freeman Marina Hospital was on the market in May of 2002. Four months earlier, Tenet had shut down St. Luke Medical Center in Pasadena, which operated 166 beds and an emergency room.

At the time, an L.A. County Department of Health Services official in charge of emergency medical services stated that closing Daniel Freeman Marina Hospital would result in higher patient wait times and longer transfer times for emergency paramedics.

Retired Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe, who oversaw Marina del Rey from 1996 to 2016, recalled that Freeman was “not very highly thought of” at the time of its impending closure, “but it did provide good access,” he said.

“Most of our constituents were concerned about emergency transport, and with Lincoln Boulevard being such a busy thoroughfare the time could be lengthy before they could get to a hospital,” Knabe said.

‘A Synergy of Energy’

Inouye recalls palpable anxiety about emergency room access throughout Marina del Rey, Venice, Playa del Rey, Westchester and newly opened Playa Vista.

“This was not about whether we wanted another McDonald’s on the corner. This was about humanity — that’s what health care is about, humanity.”

She and a half-dozen other concerned locals formed a group they called Save Our Marina del Rey Hospital and launched an intense fax, leaflet and town hall campaign to raise awareness and put up a fight.

“This was before social media, so it was a lot harder than it would have been today,” Inouye said with a laugh.

Save Our Marina del Rey Hospital co-organizer James Moore recalled finding conditions in Tenet’s purchasing agreement that included public notification requirements that weren’t being met.

“Tenet was very cavalier about meeting the conditions. They were at the stage where they were starting to dismember the hospital, moving staff members and nurses to other hospitals,” said Moore, who was vice president of the Villa Marina Council at the time. “They never planned to run it as a hospital—they wanted to sell from the very beginning. They were promoting the site as a [potential] Marriott hotel.”

In June 2002, then-California Attorney General Bill Lockyer won a court injunction to block the sale; in mid-2003 he and Tenet reached an agreement to save the hospital, which Tenet sold in September 2004 to new owners, which renamed the facility Marina Del Rey Hospital.

“There was a synergy of energy,” Inouye said. “Once you unite people around a common cause, they can be miraculous.”

‘We Will Always Be Vigilant’

Laguna-Kennedy said she and other Cedars executives recognize the peace of mind that having a local hospital brings to the community.

“That’s why we’re investing so much effort to rebuild the hospital and keep it open during construction,” she said. “I’m most excited about the wide range of health care opportunities we’ll be offering to local community members right in their backyard. They won’t have to leave their neighborhood to get care at a hospital that has state-of-the-art operating rooms, cardiac, interventional and gastroenterology labs,” she said.

Marina del Rey resident Roslyn Walker, who frequently voices concerns about the impacts of new development, is concerned about additional traffic congestion on Lincoln Boulevard during and after construction, but she’s glad to see improvements.

“I’m happy that Cedars-Sinai has taken over the hospital and look forward to the time when they get it brought up to their high standards,” Walker said.

“Having more accessibility to good health care is a really good thing,” added Moore. “The downside is traffic will probably get worse.”

Recent upgrades have included new signage around the hospital perimeter to improve traffic flow and the purchase of a new secure employee parking lot west of Lincoln Boulevard across from the hospital.

And both Moore and Laguna-Kennedy said Cedars-Sinai is already working with local groups to address traffic and other concerns.

“As Cedars-Sinai has been developing construction plans for the hospital, we’ve been working closely with key community leaders and neighbors, seeking their support and ensuring that their concerns are heard. The new hospital should have minimal impact on traffic owing to the demolition of the medical office building, which generates more traffic than a hospital. When the medical office building is gone, the drop in outpatient trips should balance out increased patient capacity at the new hospital,” she said.

Inouye said she and others who worked to save the hospital will never take for granted how difficult it was to keep a community hospital with an emergency room in Marina del Rey.

“Never. We will always be vigilant,” she said. “The community wants to get behind Cedars, and they have a good reputation that they need to uphold. We look forward to working with this new entity.”

gary@argonautnews.com

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