Borrego Sun - Since 1949

Borrego Springs - Rally re: Medical Center


Last updated 6/1/2020 at 12:49pm

The newly named Borrego Village Endowment Fund (BVEF, 'The Fund') has initiated a conversation with the members of the community through an online health care survey with the help of the Borrego Springs Chamber of Commerce and Visitor's Bureau, and the talk is heating up.

Survey announcements began Dec. 3, when the Chamber sent out e-mails through their survey tool, and The Fund placed a full page ad in this newspaper soliciting answers by directing interested people to the, where participation is reported to be steady and ongoing. The Chamber recirculated the survey since that initial blast, on Dec. 7.

The survey takes just minutes to complete and contains grading levels to be applied to current services offered and employs multiple choice answers for needs met or unmet in our current status. So far, many services being suggested as required are not currently available here, with emergency and urgent care leading the list. Survey deadline for completion is Dec. 20, and The Fund is asking for full community participation for greater analysis.

Space is allotted for writing comments and requests, and most notably, the comments so far are negative with regard to care and availability of competent doctors. The one positive remark that runs throughout the poll to both the Borrego Sun and the survey is in regard to 'Dr. Jan Jones.' The Physician's Assistant that many refer to as 'doctor' seems to be one saving grace at the local clinic. She is often accredited with being a 'doctor' and is considered our best practitioner by most respondents that get specific.

Results are strongly pointing to a changing of the guard and residents are using the survey as a catalyst for conveying a message loud and clear: change has to happen now for the future well-being of Borrego Springs.

What recently transpired to cause this outcry began as a Borrego Community Health Foundation (BCHF, Borrego Springs 'Medical Center') plan to construct a new administration building/pharmacy in downtown Borrego. The issue arose at a September meeting of the Community Sponsor Group, a liaison between the town and the County, when The Medical Center C.E.O. Bruce Hebets, along with investor and Medical Center Board Member Dennis Nourse appeared, in league with their chosen developer at the meeting, unveiling architectural plans for a new building on Palm Canyon Drive, just East of Torres Nursery. Both Torres Nursery and the intended site lot are owned by Dennis Nourse.

(This is one year after The Fund offered to finance the construction of a new $8 million emergency care building in town, which was to have been run by the Medical Center.)

As discussion got underway, the Chair of the Sponsor Group, Rich Caldwell, made a point to introduce the project as something the group would consider only from the outside, (lighting and landscaping) not being concerned with the goings-on inside the building, which was, "Beyond the scope of the Sponsor Group."

It was mentioned that the building presently being used as administrative offices, contiguous to the current pharmacy site in the plaza shops between Village Liquors and Market and Jilberto's Taco Shop, was limited in space, parking was considered dangerous, and an electrical fire had occurred last year in that building that prompted The Medical Center to decide it was time to relocate.

They said the pharmacy serves forty clients per day and needed to expand if pharmacists could be lured into valley residency, at least part-time. "We have the business," said Hebets, anxious for approval of the plan by the following meeting.

The plan sparked a reply from the Borrego Village Association (BVA).

According to their website, The Borrego Village Association is a, "Non-profit corporation formed with the specific charter of catalyzing the development and improvement of Borrego Springs' central business district. Originally formed as an outgrowth of the Borrego Springs Chamber of Commerce, the BVA has formulated and begun implementing the Palm Canyon Vitalization Plan for Borrego's downtown core which includes pedestrian walkways, traffic calming medians, and community identity and way finding signage.

The BVA and its Board members have also participated in other community planning activities involving the central business district included walkways and paths, community parks, and 'Dark Sky' improvements. Additionally, the BVA has conducted activities related to identifying Business Opportunities and market potential within Borrego Springs. The BVA seeks the active participation and input of Borrego Springs' full and part-time residents and businesses through participation in its committees and projects and through financial contributions."

The BVA Board consists of President Gwenn Marie, Vice President Jim Wermers, Director Dennis Nourse, Treasurer Betsy Knaak, Director Richard Orne, Director Susan Hancock, (Orne's wife) and Director Bob Bloom. Bloom is, "A founding Director and Secretary of the Borrego Village Foundation, (BVF) a newly formed 501c3 organization focused on improving the quality of life for full and part-time Borrego Springs residents as well as visitors to our community," according to their website.

The letter to the Sponsor Group opposing specifics of the Medical Center building plan, authored by Gwenn Marie, was considered a rebuke by the developer, the project viewed as possibly litigious and we saw the plan removed from the Sponsor Group agenda.

Meanwhile, Sponsor Chair Rich Caldwell announced publicly and through e-mailed notices, that he was recusing himself from review of the plan, as he and his wife, Gwenn Marie, own the Borrego Valley Inn, which is in close proximity to the intended site, and he could therefore could not comment.

Sponsor Group Board Member Rebecca Falk then fell as default leader in the discussion. She expressed discomfort with the appearance of possible conflicts of interest among her own board members and the need for open and honest discourse for the good of the community. She said she was sincerely concerned about health care being provided by The Medical Center and how it would be improved by building a new facility downtown.

She suggested that the group begin to actually read aloud in session, the Community Plan, to ensure each member of the board and any attending community members knew what the Plan contains and could then be followed as a guide in any future building considerations put before the Sponsor Group. The group is continuing to read the document in meetings and the public is encouraged to attend, which seems to be causing a larger audience already.

When asked about The Medical Center building plan being first proposed and then withdrawn from Sponsor consideration, the Sun heard reaction from various community members.

"We would love to have a hospital in town – we need that. I don't understand the lack of communication between players here. Something is not being shared. There seems to be something beneath the surface." – JIM WERMERS, new owner of The Mall.

"We also notice that as our population ages, many are making the decision to move out of Borrego Springs because of health care concerns." – KATHY KING & MAYOR SYLVANA MEEKS of Coldwell Banker Borrego.

"It is possible, with significant philanthropic support, to have a proper medical center in Borrego. My highest hope would be to establish a Ten-bed, Level Five Critical Care Unit, with capabilities beyond what talented EMTs are able to provide." – BRUCE KELLEY, The Borrego Valley Endowment Fund 'The Fund' Director.

"The current state of medical care in Borrego Springs is that it is not meeting the most basic needs of our permanent and part-time residents, and that these currently inadequate medical services represent a significant drag on the development of our community. We can and must do better." – DAVID GARMON, President and Founding Director, Tubb Canyon Desert Conservancy

"Borrego definitely needs a 24/7 emergency care facility, and also the people need to have a facility they can trust." – CAROLLEE BARLOW, C.E.O. Parkinson's Institute

"Our Borrego Springs' Emergency Service Teams and Paramedics are as professional and competent as any, however, their ability to provide on-going and additional treatment when necessary is severely restricted by this same lack of medical facilities and services, particularly in the after-hours." – PATRICK SAMPSON, General Manager, La Casa del Zorro Resort.

"Why isn't a doctor staffed on weekends? There have been several instances in our twenty years of operating our hotel that guests have needed to seek medical attention. When guests contact me stating that they need to see a doctor for one reason or another, they are shocked and in disbelief when I inform them that there is not a doctor on duty at the Medical Center on weekends. What gives there?

Through the years I have had several experiences with the Medical Center, be it in the office or on the phone. I dread the place and try to avoid it at all cost." – CYNTHIA WOOD, Owner Palms at Indian Head and Red Ocotillo

When viewing the public financial records of the non-profit Borrego Medical Center (BMC), which is controlled by the Borrego Community Health Foundation (BCHF) Board, 'The Medical Center' has been loyally supported monetarily over the years by The Fund, one may be shocked to observe not only the salaries of the persons involved in the organization, but the required disclosure of how many employees are actually related to one another.

As per the 990 form, it appears that in the list of highest paid directors and employees the majority are family members representing perhaps seven families, and the combined salaries of just those highest paid individuals totaled more than $4 million last year.

The group's financial statements for the year ending June 2015 show an excess of revenues over expenses of $4.7 million. The salary of the C.E.O. and his wife, not to mention another family member, are stated as being in the region of $800,000 annually, plus expenses and benefits. The forms list ten practicing physicians, each claiming 40-hour work weeks, with five earning six-figure salaries topping out at $394,249 being paid to Dr. Huot. Four Medical Physicians earning below $200,000 are listed as Independent Contractors.

"I called the Medical Center and asked how many doctors they have on staff that work full time. They told me Dr. Huot is the only doctor that is there full time. Jan Jones works Mondays and Thursdays and she is not a doctor, but a Physician's Assistant." – ROSE FEY, resident.

"Having recently looked at the publically available tax returns of the Borrego Community Health Foundation from the last several years (readily available on the web), I get concerned as to their senior management's focus. When I hear of so many medical needs in our community that are not being met by the Foundation for many years now, coupled with their demonstrative revenue growth due to their operations outside of Borrego Springs over the last ten years, I see an organization and senior management that is not able to deliver the health care the Foundation's namesake community needs." – LINDA HADDOCK, Chamber of Commerce Executive Director.

This incongruence between money flowing through the Medical Center and the discontentment being revealed in the citizenry, implies the situation could be teetering on revolt, when looked at with an eye of wisdom. An upheaval and re-examination of the workings within this system of 'health care' could not be more timely. While the country grapples with the same problem, the imperative of immediate intervention is magnified in a small, rural town.

The pharmacy in particular is under the microscope and is mentioned in surved responses as 'inept' and under-serving, too often unreliable, sometimes even dangerous. A large yellow sign has been posted on the wall inside the pharmacy stating, "This pharmacy has been placed on probation from 7/7/15 to and including 7/8/18," as they were found in violation of certain codes.

The Medical Center website lists twenty-six clinics and growing, since Hebets established the Medical Center as a 'Federally Qualified Health Center,' and began adding rural clinics and wellness centers to the Medical Center umbrella of companies.

"The addition of these clinics, anchored with headquarters at the Borrego Medical Center, has significantly boosted patient visits and revenues from MediCAL, Medicare and private insurance providers. The Foundation continues to add clinics to its network, as opportunities arise," states the Medical Center website.

The Medical Center also lists the Frugal Coyote Resale Boutique, the Borrego Springs Children's Center, Desert Home Care and Mountain View Cottages Assisted Living Facility as included in their holdings.

From the Medical Center website timeline: "Oct. 14, 1998 – As part of an effort to stabilize financial support, the Borrego Medical Center becomes certified as a Rural Health Clinic eligible for federal grant funding from the Department of Health and Human Services." This began the influx of federal funding that has allowed payment of high salaries to The Medical Center employees and directors, but has not been reflected in an improvement in services or facilities.

Their Mission Statement consists of one sentence:

"Borrego Health provides high quality, efficient customer focused health care to the communities we serve, accomplished by providing access to patient centered comprehensive care to all residents regardless of their ability to pay."

This appears to be a reference to what they term the 'sliding scale,' which claims to admit patients for care who have no insurance or funds for health care.

"What we have as a federally qualified health center is a sliding fee program which is based on the ability to pay and income," said Mark Connelly, Vice President of Operations for Borrego Community Health Foundation. "We work with them on their income standards following federal guidelines and see what they're able to afford for their visit," as stated to News Channel 3 reporter Marc Blaine in 2010.

Locals have reportedly found the sliding scale process to be unadvertised and weakly supported by staff and have complained that help with signing up is almost non-existent. Some have reported being turned away when needing care, and without an active advocate, folks tend to either seek attention elsewhere, or go untreated.

It is well known that the local ambulance does not deliver patients to the Borrego Medical Center. As The Medical Center is not staffed to handle urgent and emergency cases, and is not open weekends and evenings, most ambulance and helicopter evacuations end up delivering patients to facilities in Brawley, Palomar, Palm Springs and Escondido.

So The Fund, in its dedication to providing expanding health care services to residents, has enlisted the services of both Reach and Mercy Air medical evacuation plans as a first step in helping the community, and will be having outreach meetings to explain the service.

The Fund is interested in rebuilding what has been abandoned in regards to medical expertise since the loss of practicing doctors Woolcott, Jamie Paris, Ehrlich and Dewey, due to death or relocation.

This group will continue to support development and preservation of the good services available, whether the current management and staff remain or leave Borrego Springs.

"Ample funding is here for everything we need should it be handled in cooperation with The Medical Center or without it," said Bob Kelly of The Fund.

Benefactors that have already offered to step up are still in place to redirect efforts currently not serving the population.

A myriad of holistic practitioners, professional and educated health care workers can be rallied to create a local resource network that can be expanded and would be reliable, because these people already choose to reside here.

This paper contacted Medical Center C.E.O. Bruce Hebets, who initially agreed to an interview, after which he was unable to be reached. The Sun was then contacted by their public relations company, to refer any observations or questions to them. Public Relations representative Brian Lorenz requested written questions only, and stated a personal interview with Hebets or any member of the Board could not be conducted.

We spoke with Medical Center Chairman Harry Isley, who said he would not respond to any questions from the Sun or make any comments, and again referred us to his public relations company.

In the past twelve months, The Medical Center has not been forthcoming with any new information for the Sun to report.

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