BARSTOW Community members opposed to changes Community Health Systems has made to its plan to build a new hospital are worried that the company pressured the City Council into agreeing to those changes. City officals and hospital board members say progress is being made, and with the economy the way it is Barstow is fortunate a new hospital is being built.

Almost a week after City Manager Richard Rowe and Barstow Community Hospital Chief Executive Officer Michael Stewart met to discuss the hospital's progress, Barstow resident and planning commissioner Carmen Hernandez and four others protested against the Tennessee-based company at Monday's City Council meeting, saying it pressured the council by telling it to agree changes to the purchase agreement or the completion of the project would be hindered.

Rowe and Stewart met July 28 to discuss the hospital's progress. According to a press release issued by the city Friday, CHS delivered the hospital's preliminary plans to the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development (OSHPD). CHS received initial comments from OSHPD July 10. Under the agreement between the city and CHS, preliminary plans must be submitted to OSHPD by Nov. 3. OSHPD must receive final plans by March 23, 2010.

"(CHS) is ahead of schedule because they recognize that what's out of their control is whatever time it's going to take by the state reviewing agency to respond to their final plans," Rowe said Tuesday. "(CHS) is moving faster because they're concerned about meeting the ultimate goal of having the hospital built and open by the end of 2012."

In December 2005 the city sold land across the street from the existing hospital to CHS, which operates the existing hospital and is contracted to build the new hospital. Under the original contract the new hospital was to be finished by Dec. 31, 2011. In 2007 the completion deadline was extended to Oct. 31, 2012. The current hospital sits on land leased to CHS by the city. The city has until 2013 to build a new hospital in order to comply with California seismic safety codes.

At its June 15 meeting, the Council approved changes to the purchase agreement between the city and CHS. The number of beds was reduced from 60 to 30, all of which would be in private rooms, the completion date was extended to Nov. 30, 2012 and project timelines were changed.

When she spoke during the public comment period of Monday's City Council meeting, Hernandez went over Rowe's press release, wanting to know if the $500,000 submittal fee CHS paid OSHPD for its preliminary plans was rolled over from fees the company paid when the hospital was going to be 60 beds. She also asked what was meant when the press release stated Stewart would meet with the city manager and give presentations to the City Council on a regular basis.

"He only came before you once in 2008 and twice in 2009," she told Councilmembers. "And only because you requested it."

Because the hospital wasn't on the City Council agenda, under state law Councilmembers and city staff couldn't discuss the issue.

Sandy Baca, president of the Barstow Community Hospital's board of trustees, read a statement to City Council, giving examples of Community Health Systems' work to get the hospital built. From 2000 to 2004, she said, the city explored options to build a new hospital to be in compliance with state seismic codes. CHS stepped up to the plate in 2005 when no other company would, she said. Most industries won't build in California, she said, because of strict industry standards and because many hospitals are operating in the red.

"In a time with economic recession gripping the nation, we are indeed very fortunate to have an option that includes a large investment in our community," she said. "(The hospital) will provide the community with greatly expanded patient care areas and will leave a footprint that's much larger than the current hospital."

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(760) 256-4123 or jcejnar@desertdispatch.com