Scripps may buy El Centro Hospital

An emergency helicopter lands atop El Centro Regional Medical Center in 2007. — Peggy Peattie
An emergency helicopter lands atop El Centro Regional Medical Center in 2007. — Peggy Peattie

EL CENTRO, Calif. — According to the San Diego Union, Scripps Health could be headed for El Centro after the first of the year.

In a joint statement Monday morning, Scripps and El Centro Regional Medical Center announced a 90-day exclusive negotiating period “for the possible acquisition and management” of the 161-bed city-owned hospital about 112 miles east of San Diego.

If completed, the deal would add a sixth hospital to the Scripps portfolio and be the first outside San Diego County.

The El Centro City Council approved a search for a new operating partner for the facility in May, noting that it was one of the last municipal hospitals in the state and could benefit from joining a larger network.

David Green, chief executive of El Centro Regional, said Monday that more than 30 operators were interested in negotiating an agreement, but Scripps stood out for its commitment to keep existing services in the Imperial Valley.

“We’ve talked with Scripps about engaging not only what we have, but also about expanding the health care services that we have in the valley,” Green said.

As an example, he said that many Imperial Valley residents must now drive “over the hill” to San Diego for cardiac procedures like the insertion of stents to open blocked arteries that potentially could be performed in El Centro.

Chris Van Gorder, Scripps’ chief executive, said Monday that he has come to know El Centro Regional Medical Center through his work as a volunteer reserve commander for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department’s Search and Rescue Unit.

“Over the years, we done some search and rescue operations out in that area, and I’ve had occasion to send patients to El Centro Regional,” Van Gorder said. “I know that they’re a capable organization.”

The executive said he believes there are ways to add services to El Centro.

“There are probably some services that we can deliver out there that patients in El Centro are having to drive 120 miles to get today,” Van Gorder said.

He added that Scripps has medical education programs in primary care and trauma services that could help expand the number of doctors stationed in the desert community. Doctor recruitment is one of the reasons cited for El Centro’s move toward affiliation.

As a health system with multiple medical campuses and a robust network of affiliated doctors, Scripps operates with economies of scale unavailable to a stand-alone hospital. In terms of supply costs, or negotiating rates with insurance companies, for example, the system model can deliver savings.

Finding ways to save cash, Green said, is important with impending cuts to hospital reimbursement that are part of federal health reform.

Van Gorder said there is no timeline for the transaction to finish, but he said the deal could be done as early as Jan. 1. He said El Centro is not the only hospital that has piqued Scripps’ interest.

“This won’t be the last acquisition that Scripps will participate in,” Van Gorder said.