CVIndependent

Fri09182020

Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

The state of California’s response to the pandemic, as of late, has been a big mess.

First: The state’s COVID-19 data reporting is all messed up. According to the Los Angeles Times, the state is dealing with a backlog of up to 300,000 test results—and is in the process of developing a whole new tracking system, because the current one is not up to the admittedly massive task:

“(Dr. Mark Ghaly, the California Health and Human Services secretary) said the state would work through the backlog of records, which include COVID-19 tests and other health results, over the next 24 to 48 hours. He said state missteps compounded a problem that began with a server outage and promised a full investigation.

“The data failure set off alarm bells this week as total deaths surpassed 10,000 in California, a state that leads the nation in COVID-19 cases despite the undercount and has struggled to mitigate the virus. The delayed results could significantly increase the confirmed spread of COVID-19 from a total of 540,000 cases in the state as of early Friday.”

Sigh. Meanwhile, county health officials—already upset about the state’s arbitrary and odd reopening criteria—are being left in the figurative lurch without accurate data from the state.

Second: The state was tardy in issuing guidance to the state’s colleges and universities on how to handle student housing, in-person instruction and other important matters. Again, according to the Los Angeles Times: “Many campuses, including USC and Claremont McKenna, say the lack of clear and timely state guidance has caused them to spend enormous energy and money preparing for varying reopening scenarios—without knowing what will be allowed amid a surge of COVID-19 infections.

For the record, the state finally released that guidance today. Check it out here—if you’re bored, crazy or into dense 34-page lists of rules.

In the state’s defense, this pandemic and its effects are so huge, all-encompassing and unforeseen that mistakes and delays are not only understandable; they’re inevitable. But still … state officials need to do better than this.

Also worth noting: Gov. Gavin Newsom gave a news conference on Monday, when he touted the news of statewide COVID-19 case decreases—news that we now know may not have been accurate, because of the data mess, which people began learning about on Tuesday.

Newsom hasn’t given a news conference since. Not good, governor.

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More news links :

Here are some stats we can trust … we think: The COVID-19 stats at Eisenhower Medical Center are trending in the right direction.

The extra federal unemployment boost has ended. PPP loans are running out. And our federal government can’t agree on what to do about it. Sigh.

• Per usual, I was a guest on the I Love Gay Palm Springs podcast this week, with hosts Shann Carr, John Taylor and Brad Fuhr. Hear me rant more about the state data fustercluck, as well as the crappiness of most talk radio!

• As more and more vaccine candidates get closer to what we all hope are successful finish lines, we’ve been bombarded with news about them—often spun by the profit-driven manufacturers themselves. Well, MedPage Today just published a nice, concise look at these vaccines, how they’re different, and what we do and do not know.

• The Washington Post today posted an excellent interactive piece examining what it will take for the United States to reach herd immunity, be it by letting the virus run its course, or via a successful vaccine. The piece also looks at where we are now regarding antibodies and possible immunity. Spoiler alert: If you’re someone who thinks we should adopt the Sweden 1.0 approach and just let the virus run amok … that’ll likely mean a million or more dead Americans.

• So after the vaccines (hopefully) arrive … then what? HuffPost asked some experts to predict what life in the U.S. will be like in the years that follow a successful vaccine. Hint: Don’t expect a return to a February-style “normal.”

• According to Desert Healthcare District CEO Conrado Barzaga, the district is focused on “strengthening our healthcare infrastructure, improving our community’s health, and providing protection to vulnerable populations while still fighting a pandemic.” If you are involved with an entity that can help do any of that, take note: The DHCD will be holding a webinar at 3 p.m., Monday, Aug. 10, via Zoom to introduce five new strategic funding areas, and to demonstrate how to apply for grants or mini-grants. You need to RSVP; get details here.

A partisan elected official is responsible for writing the wording of each ballot proposition … and, well, that partisanship often affects what is written. This leads to numerous lawsuits—but judges almost never step in to change what Attorney Xavier Becerra’s office has come up with. Our partners at CalMatters, via the Independent, look at this mess—and possible solutions.

More airlines are getting very serious about mask use. Hooray.

Two stories about this week’s devastating explosion in Beirut worth reading: A Los Angeles Times reporter writes about his experience surviving the explosion; he notes that he probably should be dead, but a motorcycle helmet saved his life. Meanwhile, for you science nerds out there: A blast-injury specialist examines the physics of the blast, and compares it to what we know about the only other comparable non-nuclear explosion on record, which happened in 1917 in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

• Also from Wired: The magazine recently sat down for an interview with Bill Gates, who does not have nice things to say about the federal response to the pandemic. Beyond that, he has a lot of other revealing things to say. Key quote: “Now whenever we get this done, we will have lost many years in malaria and polio and HIV and the indebtedness of countries of all sizes and instability. It’ll take you years beyond that before you’d even get back to where you were at the start of 2020.

According to The Conversation, it’s becoming more and more apparent that wearable fitness devices may be able to let you know if you’re suffering from possible early coronavirus symptoms.

• Federal employees, including some who work at prisons, are suing the federal government. Why? They think they deserve hazard pay, according to NPR.

• Related: State prison employees are also taking legal action: Their union has filed a grievance claiming the state’s misdeeds have led to uncontrolled COVID-19 outbreaks in the state’s prison system.

• CNBC talked to experts regarding legitimate medical reasons people could possibly have to not wear a face mask while around other people. The conclusion? Unless you have a specific facial deformity or a “sensory processing disorder,” you should be masking up.

• Much has been written about Donald Trump’s … uh, baffling moves to ban TikTok. Well, as MarketWatch points out, his executive orders went well beyond TikTok—and could hamper everything from Tesla to streaming sports to the world’s most popular videogames.

Oregon voters will decide in November whether to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of all drugs.

• Barring a change of plans, the Mission Inn Festival of Lights in Riverside will indeed happen this year—albeit without the crowd-gathering events and parties.

The Apple Fire continues to burn, with some residents of Pioneertown and Morongo Valley being told to prepare to evacuate.

• And now for something completely different: Regular readers of the Independent have enjoyed Keith Knight’s comics, (Th)ink and The Chronicles, for years. Well, a new show based on his life is coming to Hulu on Sept. 9. Check out the trailer for Woke here—and congrats, Keef!

Have a safe and happy-as-possible weekend, everyone. Be safe. The Daily Digest will return Monday.

Published in Daily Digest

A while back, a reader complained that I never discussed the plight of people who are unable to wear face masks—so I asked readers who deal with that plight to write in, and explain how they handle (or don’t handle) that dilemma.

Even though this Daily Digest is emailed to 4,000 people, and available to the entire world at CVIndependent.com, I received a grand total of … zero replies from people who say they won’t wear a mask.

I did, however, receive replies from some people who said they have difficulties wearing masks—but do so anyway.

“I have COPD, and it is VERY uncomfortable to wear a mask,” said one reader, who asked not to be identified. “It is hard to breathe through a paper or cloth mask.”

This reader mentioned mask and oxygen options that would help—but are out of the reader’s price range—before concluding: “Anyways, I do wear a mask when out in public and try to keep my breathing slow and steady which helps.”

I also received this from a reader: “Don’t like Newsom. Don’t like gay marriage. Don’t like anarchy. Don’t like looters. Don’t like Biden. Trump is stupid about masks, but he is better than Biden on the issues in my opinion. However, if I am within six feet of a person or going into any store, bar, etc. I will wear a mask.”

OK then!

I’ll conclude this non-debate with this advice from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, as stated in some of the agency’s news releases: “People with medical conditions that prevent safe use of a face covering are asked to wear a face shield.”

Translation: One way another, cover your gosh darned face. There’s no excuse not to.

Today’s links:

Here’s the latest District 4 report from Riverside County. (District 4 includes all of the Coachella Valley, plus the vastness between here and the state line to the east.) The numbers, simply put, are not good. Please note that the cases are presented here based on the testing date, NOT the report date, so the more-recent weeks’ numbers will always seem smaller than they actually are, given the length of time it takes to get test results back.

• However, I do want to point out one encouraging sign: For the third straight week, the weekly positivity rate has decreased. As of the week ending July 5, it’s 12.2 percent—still too high, as the state wants that number below 8 percent, and preferably much lower. However, that’s down from 14 percent as of the week ending June 28; 14.6 percent as of the week ending June 21; and 16 percent as of the week ending June 14. I am still waiting on an explanation from the county on how, exactly, this number is calculated—but lower numbers are always good, and I am crossing my fingers tightly that is evidence that the measures we’re taking locally are finally starting to slow down the COVID-19 spread.

• From the Independent: Kevin Fitzgerald recently spoke to Desert Healthcare District CEO Dr. Conrado Barzaga about his declaration that systemic racism is a public health crisisand we’re seeing that play out in the eastern Coachella Valley during the pandemic, as COVID-19 cases there are sky high compared to the rest of the valley.

• Sigh. Squabbles between Moderna Inc. and government scientists are responsible for the delay in one of the most-promising vaccine candidates, according to Reuters.

The Palm Springs Unified School district plans on starting the school year on Aug. 5 with all-online instruction, before moving to a hybrid model within a month or so, if the pandemic allows it. 

• Related and utterly unbelievable: The president is threatening to withhold funding from schools that don’t reopen for in-person classes in the fall, and his administration is forcing the CDC to issue weaker guidelines for school openings. Why?!

• The results are in regarding Sweden’s grand experiment to keep society mostly open and let the virus run its course: The death rate there is sky-high, and the country’s economy is no better off than the economies of its neighbors that did shut down.

Related: Is the cure worse than the disease? Experts writing for The Conversation crunched the numbers—and came to the conclusion that, no, shutdowns were better for society overall than letting the virus run amok.

Also from The Conversation: The feds’ plan to send home foreign college students if they can’t attend in-person classes would be very bad for the economy.

• Oh, great! Our partners at High Country News are looking at the possibility that North American bats could get SARS-CoV-2. Key quote, from the subheadline: “This is bad news for bats and humans.

• CNBC put a weird spin on this story: “Apple Maps driving activity is slowing again in warning sign for the economy.Yeah, but if more people are staying home, isn’t that a good sign for battling the coronavirus?

• The Washington Post has revealed that at the government-run Southeastern Veterans’ Center, in the Philadelphia area, patients received a “COVID cocktail” including hydroxychloroquine—which has some pretty terrible side effects. According to the Post: “Though precise estimates vary, the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs said about 30 residents received the drug. Several nursing home staff members placed the number higher. The Chester County coroner, who reviewed the medical records for some of those who died, said at least 11 residents who had received the hydroxychloroquine treatment had not been tested for COVID-19.” Yikes!

NBC News looks at what it’ll mean for the United States to pull out of the World Health Organization. Key quote: “Apart from the effect on fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. exit from the WHO also puts at risk a polio vaccination program that has long been a priority for the U.S. across several administrations. Trump’s decision comes just as doctors believe polio is on the verge of being eradicated from the planet.”

• Equinox—which operates 23 gyms in Southern California—is asking some of its teachers to do a lot more for a lot less, with a lot more risk mixed in, according to BuzzFeed. Key quote: “Despite the risk, Equinox is asking its group fitness instructors to come back to the gym and teach classes at a discounted rate, keeping the teachers at their 75 percent pay, rather than restoring their pre-COVID-19 rates. Instructors have also been asked to help clean the group fitness studios after classes, without additional pay, as part of an effort to more frequently deep-clean the studios.”

• Finally, Randy Rainbow is back with another Trump parody video: “Poor Deplorable Troll.”

That’s today’s news. Please consider supporting honest independent local journalism by becoming a Supporter of the Independent. Be safe. Be kind. Wear a mask. The Daily Digest will return on Friday.

Published in Daily Digest

On July 31, Dr. Conrado Barzaga will celebrate his one-year anniversary as the CEO of the Desert Healthcare District—and what a completely unforeseeable year it’s been.

His organization and the valley’s overall health-care infrastructure are being severely challenged by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic—as well as a related and much-longer-term issue that came to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness on May 25, when George Floyd was killed while restrained and lying on a street in Minneapolis police custody.

The baring of the long-simmering racial injustices in our society ignited the passion of Barzaga—so much so that on June 3, he issued a statement linking systemic racism to the subpar public-health outcomes of minority populations, both in the Coachella Valley and across the country.

Here is an excerpt: “As communities across the country take to the street and risk their lives to demand justice, the Desert Healthcare District and Foundation stands in solidarity with protesters and against racism, oppression and inequality in all of its forms, because we believe that inequities have consequences, both visible and invisible. … Some may say that our focus is health care. It is in this context that we recognize that the killing of Black Americans in this country is, and for too long, has been a public health crisis.

“It is a crisis rooted in the toxic traditions of systemic racism and white supremacy. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many more have died at the hands of the police and vigilantes—they should all be alive today. For this, we condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy. No one should have to fear for their lives because of the color of their skin, ethnic origin or identity. No parent should have to worry for their child’s safety and well-being when they venture outside of their home. No community should disproportionately bear the burden of social, economic and health challenges, and yet studies show that the overall health of people of color ranks lower than the overall health of whites.”

The Independent spoke with Barzaga recently and asked what motivated him to issue such an emphatic statement.

“I believe strongly that racism has public-health consequences, and that is the reason why we took that position,” Barzaga said. “For one thing, we see that Black Americans have higher mortality rates compared to other races due to a variety of issues. One is the murder rate. If you look at deaths from a public-health standpoint, there is such a thing as ‘untimely death.’ Black Americans die in an untimely (fashion) resulting from police brutality. That is a fact. But there are other public-health issues that affect that community, and those are the result of systemic racism. Black children are born at a lower weight, and they’re born prematurely (more frequently) as a result of racism. That inflicts a tremendous amount of stress and distress on Black women.”

Barzaga said institutions of policing, learning and health care all need to undergo an important change in perspective.

“I believe that we have been (following) a philosophy of diversity, equity and inclusion that’s causing many public entities and the majority of health-care foundations to address funding through an equity-based lens,” Barzaga said. “I believe that we need to take the conversation a little bit further. We need to move from diversity, equity and inclusion to have a conversation about ‘belonging’ in our communities. The people need to feel ownership and that this is their place—not that they’re being integrated into a community or that they ‘count.’ It’s not an issue of counting; it’s an issue of belonging.

“When I moved to the desert, I found that the community is welcoming. I believe that everyone should have that same feeling—not only that you’re welcome, but that you feel you belong in this community, that you’re part of it, and that you’re celebrated. Not because you’re white, or Black, or gay, or straight, or a man or a woman; I think it’s an issue of belonging. And, when we incorporate that lens of belonging, I think we will make our desert a much better place.

“Although, I do have to say that the desert is a wonderful place—but there is space for improvement.”

The DHCD is working on taking immediate action to address longstanding needs in local Black communities, such as the Desert Highlands Gateway neighborhood of Palm Springs. Barzaga and the DHCD Board of Directors have introduced a resolution formalizing a grant of more than $432,000 for minority health-care improvement, some of which will be earmarked to improve overall health-related conditions for those who live there.

“The district has been working for years with the Desert Highland Gateway community, and I think this will be a continuation of that response,” Barzaga said. “But this time, there will be a definitive action to bring health-care as a reality to that community. That’s what the community says they need; that’s what the community wants; that’s what they have expressed through their community health-needs assessment; and that’s what the leaders are saying. They have been raising the issue of a lack of affordable, nutritious food in that area. There’s no supermarket or any market at all that’s providing services to that community. So there are many issues that I believe require a collective response, not only from the DHCD, but from the city of Palm Springs as well. We are trying to mobilize other resources so that this can become a more comprehensive response to the needs of that community.

“The district is taking a leadership role. We have made a beautiful statement about solidarity, but I think we have to show actions, and not only words—and this might even become a template for how we address the health-care needs of other minority communities in the Coachella Valley.”

The DHCD board recently voted to allow all funding provided to the district to be spent in any region of the expanded “One Coachella Valley” district, whose boundaries now run from Palm Springs in the west to communities like Coachella, Indio and Mecca in the east. The district’s eastern boundary for years was Cook Street, but voters approved the expansion in November 2018. However, that expansion did not come with an expansion in revenues.

“The people have decided that the DHCD should cover the entire Coachella Valley, so, that’s what we’re doing,” Barzaga said. “We will continue to raise the issue of funding disparities between east and west. I think, ultimately, it may have to be the Legislature who will have to provide a solution for that valley-wide funding issue.”

Barzaga said the imminent danger presented by the pandemic has highlighted inequities in the Coachella Valley. By a wide margin, there have been more COVID-19 cases in Indio and Coachella than any other valley city.

“It is clear that we cannot neglect the health-care needs of the eastern Coachella Valley residents, and COVID-19 really put this front and center,” Barzaga said. “Very early on, we knew that we were going to have a much larger problem in the eastern valley as related to COVID-19. These are residents who depend on working day-to-day (outside of their homes). They don’t have the same ability, as many of us do, to work from home. They have to go into the fields, and they have to go and serve the people of Coachella Valley (via the service industry) while being in close proximity to one another. This population doesn’t have the same access to health care as residents in the western parts of the valley. That combination of less protection, less access to care and a more impacted (personal) immune system has been a formula for disaster, and we are seeing the results right now. We have made very heavy investments in our community clinics to make sure that we’re deploying resources for the serious needs of that community.

“There is a gap between the health outcomes in the east and west that we intend to close,” Barzaga said. “It will be years before we have a more-robust health-care infrastructure that can meet the needs and demands of everyone in Coachella Valley. That’s why we’re doing the Community Health Needs Assessment, which is a community-driven plan. Through that needs assessment, we want the community to tell us what they want as a health-improvement plan, and that health-improvement plan will be the road map for the next 10, 20 or 30 years for the district’s investments in the health-care structure of the valley, and to be responsive to the needs of the neediest in our communities.”

Published in Local Issues

Understatement alert: Things are weird for all of us right now.

On a personal level, this fact really hit home for me when it was a relief and even a pleasure—a temporary return to normalcy, if you will—to spend two hours today editing/proofing 8,000 words of question responses by Rancho Mirage City Council candidates.

Yay, journalism!

Normally, an editor such as myself would find a task like this to be about as enjoyable as dental surgery without anesthesia. (No offense to the Rancho Mirage candidates; the case is the same with full Q&A interviews with candidates for each and every office. The responses are important and interesting, albeit a bit rambling in some cases, but the task of carefully proofing the text is, well, bleh.)

But today, it was … nice.

A hat tip to Kevin Fitzgerald, the Independent’s staff writer, who had to transcribe all of those 8,000 words. Buy him a drink the next time you see him out and about. Y’know, in a few months.

Sigh.

Anyway, on with the news:

• Yesterday was the first time in the Independent’s history that we’ve ever sent an email to our e-subscriber list that was not specifically related to Independent content. Instead, it was about the vitally important work the Desert AIDS Project is doing now—and the fact that the organization, due to a loss in revenue and a huge rise in expenses because it opened a whole, new clinic to respond to the COVID-19 crisis—really needs our help. Find that message here, and go here if you can help: https://desertaidsproject.salsalabs.org/covid19fund/p/coachellavalleyindependent/index.html

Eisenhower has put out a call for donations of personal protective equipment. Call 760-837-8988, or click here for details. 

The city of Palm Springs has clarified the temporary rules on short-term rental and hotel bookings. To paraphrase: They’re not allowed, save for some very specific exemptions.

• Some, but not all, of the big banks have agreed to a 90-day moratorium on mortgage payments if you’ve been affected by COVID-19. As of yet, alas, the state has yet to take firm steps to protect people who rent—but Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia and others are calling for action.

• However, the city of Rancho Mirage has already taken action by issuing a moratorium on residential and commercial evictions.

• Here’s more info on what the city of Rancho Mirage is doing to boost the takeout-offering restaurants in that city.

Confused about what’s an essential business, and what isn’t, and what this all means? The city of Palm Springs has posted this helpful breakdown regarding the state order means.

The Desert Healthcare District has allocated $1.3 million to help with various issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic locally.

• From the Independent: Coachella and Stagecoach have been moved to October this year. Our Kevin Carlow thinks that should be a permanent thing.

SunLine is offering free fixed-route rides during the pandemic. Just make sure you board in the back.

• Fox and iHeartRadio are teaming up for an all-star concert, hosted by Elton John. It’s called the Living Room Concert for America, and it airs this coming Sunday on Fox.

• The Conversation brings us this fascinating piece on the mad-dash effort to find existing drugs that will help patients suffering from COVID-19.

• Meanwhile, the FDA is allowing doctors to use the blood of people who have recovered from COVID-19 to treat people in the midst of the battle with the virus.

• The California Desert Arts Council has compiled a list of resources offering financial relief for artists and art organizations.

Stephen Colbert is the latest talk show to announce a return to the air—just with everyone working from home.

• Theater fans: The Tony Awards, to nobody’s surprise, have been postponed. In other, awful theater news, the coronavirus has claimed the life of the Tony Award-winning writer Terrence McNally.

• The Wall Street Journal suggests these home workouts you can do to keep yourself in shape.

• Remember that kid in that viral video who refused to stop partying, saying, “If I get corona, I get corona?” Well, he’s apologized.

• Some local restaurants including Jake’s and Dringk are starting a very cool thing: Selling food essentials in addition to prepared dishes.

• In related news, our friends at the Purple Room are offering an online virtual show tonight to go along with takeout food.

• Local treasure Joyce Perry—you may remember her as Joyce Bulifant, of Airplane! and Match Game fame—has posted this hilarious (if oddly violent video) of her son trying to show her how to use Tinder.

• DJ Galaxy—our readers’ pick in the Best of Coachella Valley as the Best Local DJ—made this video of shuttered spaces in Palm Springs and Cathedral City that are beloved by the LGBT community. I’ll admit: It made me cry.

That’s all for today. Wash your hands. Eat good food. Call someone you love. More tomorrow.

Published in Daily Digest

Back in October, a mulch fire ignited at the Sun Valley Recycling Center near Thermal, on land owned by the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians. The smoke plagued schools and neighborhoods for several weeks, creating health concerns for thousands of residents in the eastern Coachella Valley.

Communities and school boards called for help—and one of the organizations that answered that call was the recently expanded Desert Healthcare District, led by newly elected Board President Leticia De Lara, and Chief Executive Officer Conrado Barzaga.

“There were funds (accessible to the DHCD) that were identified for clean air and to address some of the air-quality issues related to the fires that were burning in the east valley last October,” De Lara said during a recent phone interview. “Our CEO, Conrado, was able to identify these funds and some partners who could bring some immediate health-care resources to the residents, including Borrego Health, Clinicas de Salud del Pueblo, federally qualified health clinics, the Coachella Valley Unified School District and the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians tribe. Also, (Barzaga) was able to identify some funds that were set aside to address issues like this in the future, and (allow potential responders) to avoid the chaos that resulted … (by facilitating) their coordination.”

This would not have been possible a couple of years ago: In November 2018, Coachella Valley residents voted to expand the Desert Healthcare District beyond its original, antiquated Cook Street boundary, all the way to the eastern end of the valley. Since then, seven districts were re-drawn and approved by the DHCD board, and directors were put in place for each. As 2019 drew to a close, the DHCD was starting to make its supportive influence felt in these historically underserved east valley communities.

In another recent dangerous health-related incident that drew substantial attention, the management of the Oasis Mobile Home Park in Thermal proved to be incapable of supplying reliable access to clean drinking water for its nearly 2,000 residents; the drinking water drawn from wells on the property, also owned by the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians, was found to contain unacceptably high levels of arsenic. Immediate attempts to import clean water proved insufficient.

“At our December meeting, we allocated some funding to be used in partnership with the county of Riverside to address some of the water-quality issues affecting the mobile home park in the Thermal area,” De Lara said. “And we also funded a request from Martha’s Village back in October. So, those are some examples of what’s already been accomplished” in the expansion territory.

The arrival of the DHCD as a new funding option in the east valley is welcomed by established nonprofit health service providers working with east valley residents, including the Coachella Valley Volunteers in Medicine (CVVIM).

“It’s nice to see new things happening,” said Doug Morin, the executive director of CVVIM, in a phone interview. “There’s about $300,000 for east valley funding. So, when you consider all the (health-care-related) charities serving residents in the east valley, (the funding) is limited, but anything is better than nothing.”

Morin said he had just submitted an application for a $50,000 grant to be used to defray the costs of the east valley patient services his nonprofit provides. He hopes his proposal will get approved by the DHCD board in February. However, when compared to the roughly $120,000 annual grant that CVVIM has received from the DHCD to serve its west valley population, the geographic discrepancy in available support becomes apparent.

De Lara said the disparity comes from the fact that funding going toward efforts within the previous DHCD boundaries is not being reduced to fund efforts in the expanded portion.

“We’re continuing to provide the same level of funding for the west valley. … We are continuing to address homelessness and (work) for a regional solution,” she said. “We believe that in the west valley, there are some major gaps in services (for the homeless).”

According to the June 30, 2018, audited financial statements, the total outlay of funds to west valley grant recipients was $5,076,039 for fiscal year 2018, the last full fiscal year prior to the expansion eastward. However, efforts by the DHCD to raise comparable funds to support east valley service grants are foundering. Given this reality, it’s impossible for the grant levels to reach parity across the valley without cutting the grants to providers serving west valley residents. However, as De Lara indicated, that is not a likely scenario for the DHCD board to pursue.  

Morin sees his CVVIM as somewhat unique among Coachella Valley health-care service nonprofits, because it has served residents at both ends of the valley for years. He said the distinction and disparity between funding levels for the original DHCD territory and the new expanded territory is obvious and challenging.

“Their max funding request (for the recent proposal he submitted to serve east valley patients of his clinic) was $50,000, which is what I requested,” he said. “They don’t have that restriction on the west valley, because, of course, they have more funds for the west valley.”

How can the DHCD address this funding imbalance?

“I think we’re realizing that there’s going to be a need to include other partners,” De Lara said. “Sharing costs on some of these long-term visions, I think, is important. Also, there’s the potential to bring in dollars from the state and federal governments by communicating to them in a much better way, through our assessments and studies, where the gaps are, and how they can help us. We can put together a really strong, compelling case statement for some funding. I think the potential to bring in grants that add to our current resources is a very promising possibility for funding.”

In the past, DHCD representatives have approached Riverside County and the state government about various tax strategies designed to generate the new revenues necessary to fund the annexed east valley needs. However, that outreach has so far proved fruitless.

“The possibility of going to the voters or the county for some assessment is something that we have not discussed, so I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying where we’re at on that, because we’re nowhere,” she said. “But in the last board meeting (of 2019), we actually approved two positions to take the lead on exploring funds and grants to help support the work that we’re going to be doing on behavioral health. So I think that we’ll start with grants to try to generate more revenue.”

Despite the immediate challenges presented by the revenue shortfall, De Lara said she sees a bright future for her organization’s ability to enable much-needed quality health care through its grantee nonprofits.

“We have to think strategically,” De Lara said. “We have to think incrementally, and we have to think partnerships. I think that’s how we’ll be approaching the mass of the needs that we (face) now because of the additional area, as well as the district we had before. We’re one Coachella Valley. We’re one district, and we have to keep asking, ‘Are we advancing toward our mission, and are we doing it in a fair way, a smart way and collaboratively?’”

While Morin said the funding disparity is problematic, he praised the efforts the DHCD is making.

“They’re a great foundation,” Morin said. “They’re very transparent about everything that they do, and I like their plan of this ‘One Coachella Valley.’ Their (east valley) impact will be felt immediately, once we receive those (requested grant) funds. Even though I may wish that (those funds) were more, it’s a start. … Sources of funding in the east valley are somewhat limited, so this is valuable. It’s important for us, and it will allow a number of agencies to provide more services. So they’re out there doing their own fundraising, and hopefully, over the years, the amount of funding available to the east valley will increase, and that’s a good thing.”

Published in Local Issues

The last few years have been quite transformative for the Desert Healthcare District (DHCD).

First, there was the need to change the board of directors election process from an at-large standard to a district-based approach, in order to comply with the California Voting Rights Act. As that process moved ahead, voters in the eastern Coachella Valley last November approved the district’s expansion beyond its antiquated Cook Street boundary, creating the potential for improved health-care access and services in the eastern valley—while necessitating that the district figure out how to fully fund services in the expanded district. That voter edict resulted in the launch of yet another rezoning process, which is currently under way.

Through these administrative and organizational challenges, the DHCD has continued to provide support to local health-care providers and community-service programs, addressing needs such as homelessness, public health and behavioral health.

It was against this backdrop on July 31 that the DHCD welcomed its new CEO, Dr. Conrado Barzaga. He brings some 20 years of experience ranging from health-care management and fund development to public-health and public-policy work. After completing his education as a physician and working in his native Cuba, Dr. Barzaga’s career path took him to Argentina, Bolivia and the United States.

Since coming to the U.S., he has held positions as a senior program officer for First 5 LA (2008-2012) and vice president for Planned Parenthood Los Angeles (2006-2008), among other work in health education and public health. Most recently, he spent more than seven years as president and CEO of the Center for Oral Health, where he was instrumental in expanding programs to under-served communities.

During a recent phone interview, Dr. Barzaga talked about the challenges and responsibilities facing the district.

“I believe that addressing health-care needs requires information, intervention and ideas from different sectors,” he stated. “Of course, we need the ideas of those who are the recipients of health-care services, but we also need to understand and listen to the providers of health-care services. So we will inform our work by working with all the sectors of our society that are engaged in health care in one way or another, from the recipients, to the providers, and to the systems.”

Barzaga spoke about the value of data aggregation and analysis in identifying and understanding the health-care needs and desires of the valley’s residents.

“I want to engage our community (in order) to listen and to learn,” he said. “Our board is elected by the people, and therefore, it must respond to the people. They will tell us what they perceive to be their priorities. From a data-gathering perspective, it is important that we gather as many indicators as we can. There are different sources (from which) we can get that data, including California’s Department of Health Care Services and the federal government’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services—you name it. But it is the community’s participation which is going to provide the best intelligence and the best approach to addressing the needs of the district.”

Barzaga addressed the expansion of the district into the eastern Coachella Valley—including some of the area’s most under-served communities.

“We need to understand how the health inequities manifest in the health disparities in the district,” he said. “We need to quantify and qualify those disparities. That will help the district understand where it can have a more profound impact, what the best approach will be, and how the limited resources that we manage can have the best outcome and the best return on the public-dollar investments in the district.” Barzaga wants to utilize surveys, town-hall meetings, focus groups and individual interviews to, in his words, “distill and construct a cohesive long-term approach to how we’re going to foster a healthy one Coachella Valley 2030/2040/2050 (strategic plan).”

Lightheartedly, he added, “I’m in it for the long run.”

The Independent asked Dr. Barzaga how he views the collaborative effort involving the DHCD, the Coachella Valley Association of Governments (CVAG) and the office of Riverside County Supervisor V. Manuel Perez to address the homelessness situation in a number of our desert’s cities.

“Homelessness has important public-health implications,” he said. “At the same time, it’s a very complex issue that requires a collaborative approach to have a collective impact. Thus far, the district-commissioned report (on homelessness in our region) has been the framework for how the community can approach the issues of homelessness in the Coachella Valley.”

The district has committed $3 million to go toward addressing homelessness in the Coachella Valley.

“There was a request for proposals released very recently to invite different providers in the community to come up with ideas and plans on how to help solve the challenge of homelessness in the Coachella Valley,” Barzaga said. “I think the district has been active and has been a significant force in catalyzing and providing resources to our community partners to address homelessness.”

Does Dr. Barzaga feel the DHCD’s expansion of service into the east valley is producing desired results yet?

“From my perspective, the board is deeply committed to the expansion,” he said. “We held six community forums in the first half of this year in Mecca, North Shore, Coachella, La Quinta, Palm Desert and Indio. We’re sharing information with the community about the work of the district, and raising awareness about who we are, what we do, and how we can work together to make the district better. We had very good feedback from the community, and it was made clear through that process that, because of the expansion, some of these priorities are going to shift.

“The realities and the needs of the eastern Coachella Valley are different from the needs of the western Coachella Valley. One of the public-health functions of a health-care district is to address health-care disparities. We believe that there are many, and to address them, we need to understand and apply the lens of the social determinants of health, (in order) to make investments that are long-term, transformational and help to create a healthy Coachella Valley.

“Part of our community outreach effort is the platform we created called the Coachella Valley Health Information Place (CVHIP). It’s an online resource that any social-service workers, health-care providers, community health workers and community members can have access to. It connects different resources with the people who need access to those resources, like housing, food, health care, health insurance, day care, etc.

“To give you some examples, fire departments and police departments are using that (online) resource when they encounter people who need access to services—whether it’s behavioral health, housing, food, you name it. They are using this tool daily to provide solutions to the people they encounter in their daily work. Still, we’re promoting it everyday.”

We asked Barzaga if he had a message that he wanted to communicate through this interview—his first since assuming the new position.

“Rezoning is another topic which is now a priority for the district,” Dr. Barzaga said. “So far, we have had two public hearings this year, and we have two more coming up, and like the municipalities that have gone through the rezoning process, our aim is to have a board that reflects the various communities in the Coachella Valley. So we are really encouraging the public to come out and help us.”

Those hearings will be held during the district’s board meetings on Tuesday, Sept. 24, and Tuesday, Oct. 22. To view the initial set of proposed maps, visit www.dhcd.org/zoning.

Published in Local Issues

It’s been hot in the Coachella Valley—including a 121-degree day on Aug. 5—and no segment of our community is more threatened by that heat than the valley’s homeless population.

It was a 115-degree day on June 11 that helped spur the city of Palm Springs to partner with Riverside County to open an emergency overnight cooling center at the Demuth Community Center—and that partnership helped lead to an even larger collaboration to open three new long-term overnight cooling centers in the valley.

The centers opened July 1, the result of a partnership between the county, the Coachella Valley Association of Governments, and the three cities where the centers are located. The Coachella Valley Rescue Mission is staffing the centers, with the Desert Healthcare District and Foundation offering support.

Greg Rodriguez is the government affairs and public policy adviser to Riverside County Supervisor V. Manuel Perez.

“Supervisor Perez and I were approached by the city of Palm Springs to try to get (an overnight cooling center) opened this year,” Rodriguez said. “Supervisor Perez suggested that we should try it in the three cities of Palm Springs, Cathedral City and Desert Hot Springs. It’s easier for transportation—for the homeless individuals who don’t want to leave the city that they are in—so that’s how the three new nighttime centers were developed this year.

“Ideally, I’m working on some other projects that hopefully will result in more permanent facilities for next year that would be 24-hour operations,” like those in the east valley.

In Indio, both the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission and Martha’s Village and Kitchen offer spaces where homeless individuals can both stay cool and access a variety of other needed services.

“(Our facility) is a place where we provide services, but the west valley does not (have such a place),” said Tom Cox, program director at CVRM. “… If there were a west valley shelter, or navigation center, or whatever they’re calling it this week, then they would be more successful. It really is that simple: One, have a place. Two, put service providers in that place who are going to make a real difference—and, three, there will be results.”

Daytime summer cooling centers have been a regular feature across Riverside County and the Coachella Valley for decades.

“The daytime cooling centers are managed by Riverside County through the Community Action Partnership, or CAP,” Rodriguez said. “We try to add new sites when possible. When we get really extreme temperatures, they’ll expand their hours during the day. But we haven’t had any nighttime cooling centers.”

Until now. However, it wasn’t easy to get the overnight cooling centers up and running.

“There were a lot of logistics,” Cox said. “Staffing was one, because you need staff that are compassionate and know what they’re doing. You needed port-a-potties, port-a-showers and portable storage units. … (People in need) get a shower, a clean set of clothes and a meal.”

The collaboration has not only filled an urgent need; it’s raised hopes of even further partnerships to help the homeless in the valley.

“I’ve started kind of a new role,” Rodriguez said. “I’m still with Supervisor Perez’s office, but I’m heading up a homelessness collaborative effort through the Coachella Valley Association of Governments in conjunction with the Desert Healthcare District and Riverside County. Also, it has the support of the valley’s nine cities through CVAG. … We did contract through CVAG with the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission (CVRM) to handle all the daily operations. I’m more involved in the conceptual side, the financing side and, of course, tracking (data) the results. Ideally, we’re not only hoping to get people cool at night, but also get them tied into some homelessness services as well. In fact, we’ve had success with that already in the case of at least six individuals.”

Can any resident of the valley escape the summer heat in one of these facilities?

“The daytime cooling centers serve all of the (valley’s) residents,” Rodriguez said. “The nighttime centers mainly focus just on the homeless population. That being said, if somebody’s electricity should go out, and they don’t have air conditioning or they don’t have the funds to run their air all the time, they’re welcome to use the centers. We’re not prohibitive, but the focus is on the chronically homeless population who are sleeping out in the elements.”

Both Rodriguez and Cox extolled the involvement of the Desert Healthcare District, which threw resources and fundraising muscle behind the cooling center program expansion.

“Regarding the new nighttime centers, we’ve had them open for a month now, and they will be open (until the end of September),” Rodriguez said. “In the first month, it’s been highly successful.”

In July, the three centers served more than 250 people and fulfilled well more than 3,000 service requests.

“There’s still a need for additional funds, because we’re helping to cover the extra utility costs of the churches who have donated their space,” Cox said. “This is where the DHCD has been such a great partner by matching any of the privately donated funds that have come in. The Desert Healthcare District has been great in providing us with email (outreach) to share what we need, and their Summer Homeless Survival Fund has done a pretty awesome job as well, and in a short time.”

What can valley residents contribute to support these vital new community shelters?

“Towels, toiletries, linens and pillows are all things that we need, and we have to launder them every day,” Cox said. “We need bottled water, individually wrapped snacks, coffee, paper products, air fresheners, clothing and undergarments. Bombas socks just donated about 7,500 pairs of socks. … For the centers themselves, we need bike racks, storage racks, a few laptops, some commercial laundry washers and dryers. If somebody has an extra SUV or van lying around, we could definitely use those. We need a lot.”

The three cooling centers are open 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. at the city of Palm Springs facility at 225 S. El Cielo Road; World Life of Fellowship Center, 66290 Estrella Ave., in Desert Hot Springs; and Community Presbyterian Church, 38088 Chuperosa Lane, in Cathedral City.

To donate supplies, call Tom Cox at the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission at 760-347-3512, ext. 251, or drop them off at 47470 Van Buren St., in Indio. Cash donations can be made through the Desert Healthcare District at www.dhcd.org/HomelessFund.

Published in Local Issues

An Election Day decision by eastern Coachella Valley voters could have a positive impact on all valley residents’ access to quality healthcare moving forward.

Voters overwhelmingly approved Measure BB—written by the Desert Healthcare District in conjunction with the Riverside County Board of Supervisors—as the final step required in the DHCD’s efforts to expand its borders east beyond Cook Street. While the expansion of services to some of the valley’s most underserved communities may have seemed like a no-brainer during the run-up to the election, the process did not get this far without a lot of work.

“I think it’s important to note that this has been an extremely robust, kind of overwhelming process just to get to this point,” said interim DHCD CEO Chris Christensen during a recent phone interview. “There were times when there was concern whether the public would potentially (be able to) vote for passage of the measure. With all of the polling, the focus groups, the negotiations with the county board of supervisors and all the effort that has gone into this over the last year and a half, it was extremely close that this would not have made it onto the ballot this year. … I was told that no other health-care district in the state has ever had to go through this process of expansion, so it’s unprecedented. Our next step is to get the funding and continue the good things the district does.”

The Desert Healthcare District was created by the state of California in 1948. Today, the DHCD provides support to a variety of organizations (such as Find Food Bank, Volunteers in Medicine, Coachella Valley Rescue Mission, etc.) that provide health and wellness services to residents. However, the district’s boundaries stopped at Cook Street—until the passage of Measure BB finally expanded the district valley-wide.

The fundraising challenge ahead for the DHCD is daunting—more about that later—and a number of milestones need to be achieved soon to keep the bureaucratic end of this process on track and on time. One of the first requirements stemming from the voters’ expansion approval is the appointment of two new DHCD board directors who live in the annexed areas. According to a current DHCD timeline, the board must adopt a resolution to increase the number of its members from five to seven by no later than Jan. 2, 2019. Once that commitment is confirmed, the board will start to accept applications from east valley residents who would like to serve. Any interested residents will have until Jan. 8 to submit an application. During this same period, the DHCD staff will be managing a multi-pronged information-outreach effort to the annexed communities.

This candidate search will culminate at a public meeting of the board on Jan. 15, where applicants of interest to the board will be interviewed and considered. By the meeting’s conclusion, two new board members will be appointed, with one serving a term ending in December 2020, and the other serving until December 2022.

“Obviously, we’re looking for individuals who have a passion for our mission and what we’re doing,” Christensen said. “We’re willing to hear from anyone. But whether the board chooses to hear from all the applicants during the meeting interview opportunity will be at its own discretion. There are some limitations where a candidate cannot have worked in management, or as an executive, at the Desert Regional Medical Center or other hospitals in our region.

Doug Morin, the executive director of Coachella Valley Volunteers in Medicine in Indio, welcomed the forthcoming expansion, while taking a realistic view of the overall process.

“Though this has passed, I don’t know that the district really understands fully yet how they’re going to proceed,” Morin said. “Nobody has come to us to say, ‘Hey … you’re going to get access to more money.’ None of that has happened yet. For many of us agencies, we’re all very pleased and excited, because the valley is the valley. It shouldn’t be eastern valley and western valley; it’s one valley. … It certainly is the beginning of treating everyone in the valley equally regardless of where you live.”

A first step toward that end will be the creation of two new zones of service, which will get under way in February 2019. It will require the redrawing of boundaries for the existing five districts, as well as the establishment of new boundaries for the annexed area zones. According to the DHCD informational materials, a resolution to be passed in February will call for the new zones to be properly established; outline a public-outreach process; explain the zone-creation process and encourage public participation; and offer a schedule of public hearings regarding the new maps. A vote to adopt a final map of the seven new zones is set to take place sometime in October.

“We will be making concerted efforts in community relations in the expanded areas to better understand what the needs are, and how to provide access, program services, facilities or whatever options there are that make the most sense relative to the resources we have available,” Christensen said. “Obviously, we’re planning to increase those resources to provide additional opportunities. We’ll establish an office presence in the expanded area. We’re currently looking at a property where we would set up a satellite office so that we can have access to the community members there. We don’t want them to feel that they have to go all the way to Palm Springs to talk with staff or communicate with the board.”

As for that aforementioned fundraising challenge: The DHCD is currently facing an estimated budget shortfall of roughly $3 million in order to service the new zones completely and in their entirety.

“At the end of the day, it’s certainly our goal to match the funds currently available in the existing districts (roughly $3.5 million) to provide services in the new districts,” Christensen said. “Ideally, it would be nice if we could hypothetically receive the same allocation of property taxes from the expanded district residents as we currently get from district residents. That would be neat and simple.”

Last summer, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors turned down a request from the DHCD to receive a portion of county property taxes collected from the annexed zones’ residents, as has been the case in the previously existing districts. The Board of Supervisors may re-examine the question now that Measure BB has passed.

“We’ve got our backs against the wall in the sense of developing funding,” Christensen said. “First and foremost was to get the measure passed to approve the expansion. Now we have to address additional funding sources. It’s not going to be easy, but it will be up to the new board. We’ll have three new board members come January, with new thoughts and ideas that might come to play in helping to further the fundraising.”

Published in Local Issues

When most residents of the Coachella Valley go to the polls on Nov. 6, for the first time, they will be able to either cast a vote directly impacting future access to important health care services, or elect a representative to champion their specific community needs.

Some voters living in the current, long-established Desert Healthcare District (DHCD)—which begins in Palm Springs and extends east to Palm Desert’s Cook Street—will be casting votes to elect representatives in two newly formed districts: District 2, primarily covering Desert Hot Springs; and District 4, mostly made up of Cathedral City.

At the DHCD board’s public session on June 26, a final zoning map was adopted that defines the boundaries of the five new districts created within the current DHCD. Previously, the five-member board was elected at large by the entire district; two of five seats are up for election this year.

The move to district-based elections should mean better representation for minority populations; one of the most outspoken advocates for this is Alexis Ortega, the director of community outreach for the LGBT Community Center of the Desert.

“Cathedral City has pockets where … some 70 percent of the folks living in that one area are Latino,” Ortega said in a phone interview. “So, when you have districts (created) where the minority group becomes the majority in that neighborhood, like what we’ve been advocating for in the DHCD districting process, there’s the potential to strengthen that (minority) voting block and get their preferred candidate elected.”

As for Coachella Valley residents living east of Cook Street: They will be casting their votes on whether the DHCD and its important healthcare support services will be expanded into their communities, beginning in 2019.

“As we know, there’s a great disparity between services provided to residents of the east valley as opposed to the west—whether it’s the number of providers or the number of resources and things like that,” said Dr. Les Zendle, president of the Desert Healthcare District and Foundation board of directors, during a phone interview. “But with our ‘One Coachella Valley’ approach, we really believe that—just like with transportation or other issues that can’t be handled by one city at a time, or half the valley at a time—(we’ll be able) to take a collective look at health care.”

Assuming that the majority of the valley’s east side voters approve the DHCD expansion in November, the DHCD will need to start the process of again redistricting and then electing representatives to those new districts—a process that will take place through 2022.

“This November, there will be the first two elections in the new districts, so it will be interesting to see who pops up to the forefront (to run),” Ortega said. “Moving forward, the biggest thing will be informing folks of the importance of the role that the DHCD plays in setting their health-care priorities and in funding for our region. Also, in November, folks in the (proposed) annexed areas will be voting to approve the expansion of the DHCD into their communities, so our role at the LGBT Community Center of the Desert will be to make folks aware of everything that’s happening and how it affects our community, and how our center works with LGBT folks of color to make sure that their needs are met.”

Zendle said he and his fellow board members have a lot of work to do.

“We will certainly continue to do what we have always done, which is trying to educate the public about what the Desert Healthcare District and its foundation does,” he said. “To be frank with you, it’s something not a lot of people in the community are familiar with. I think that the political people and the stakeholders who receive our funding are aware of it, but the general community isn’t necessarily aware of what we are.”

The DHCD provides support to a variety of organizations (such as Find Food Bank, Volunteers in Medicine, Coachella Valley Rescue Mission, etc.) that provide health and wellness services to residents.

How can a valley resident within one of the new districts become a candidate for a board seat? “Basically, a person has to be a registered voter in the district or the zone in which they want to run,” Zendle said. “They have to get the forms and a handbook and instructions on how to get on the ballot and conduct their campaign. They can pick up these materials either here at our DHCD offices in Palm Springs or through the County Registrar’s Office.” Candidates must also pay $1,150; the nomination period runs through Aug. 10.

As complex, problematic and underappreciated as the DHCD seems to be, its potential to provide valuable services to all communities is evident.

“I currently live in Palm Springs,” Ortega said, “so I’m a Palm Springs resident who wants to see Palm Springs represented (on the DHCD board), but I also understand that maybe Palm Springs has been a bit over-represented on the DHCD board. So, how can we bring in other voices that may stem from communities that are more heavily majority-minority, and how can we make sure that those voices are included? I think this (district-creation effort) has been a good first step, but the process is imperfect. No one is ever going to be completely happy, but I think it’s a good first step.”

For more information on the DHCD’s new districts and proposed expansion, visit www.dhcd.org.

Published in Local Issues

In 1948, the Desert Healthcare District was created by the state of California. Health-care districts were intended as a “response to a shortage of acute care hospitals as well as minimal access to health care in rural parts of the state,” according to the DHCD website.

In the ensuing 70 years, the service portfolio of the DHCD has evolved and expanded. Today, with an annual operating budget of roughly $7 million, the DHCD provides support to a variety of organizations (such as Find Food Bank, Volunteers in Medicine, Coachella Valley Rescue Mission, etc.) that provide health and wellness services to residents in the current district—some 515 square miles of the western Coachella Valley, including Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage and the portion of Palm Desert west of Cook Street.

While a Riverside County property-tax allocation paid by all county residents helps fund the DHCD, it serves only this relatively limited portion of the county’s population. However, that is about to change.

In February 2016, Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia—representing his eastern Coachella Valley constituency—introduced legislation, Assembly Bill 2414, mandating the DHCD to annex an additional 1,760 square miles of territory—and to provide health-care support to residents of eastern Palm Desert, Indian Wells, La Quinta, Indio, Coachella, Bermuda Dunes, Mecca, Thermal, Oasis, North Shore and Vista Santa Rosa. The bill passed and was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in September 2016.

Today, a concerted effort is underway to bring the vision of an expanded DHCD to fruition. The next important milestone: Having the voters of Coachella Valley approve the expansion by passing a measure. Spearheaded by DHCD CEO Herb Schultz and the health district’s board of directors, the “One Coachella Valley” approach, as CEO Schultz calls it, did not arrive at this point without struggle against resistance.

“This has been (the subject) of an ongoing conversation for about 15 years that, finally, required us to pass legislation to get to this point,” Garcia said. “Are you aware that this effort now underway could have been accomplished by the DHCD taking the initiative and applying to the Riverside County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) to expand their territory? I hate to say this, but we almost had to force this issue via the legislation in order for us to get to where the voters can approve it in November.”

That struggle seems to have given way to a new spirit of mutual cooperation.

“The (DHCD) board’s focus, and the advocates’ focus, is squarely on getting this) on the ballot this year,” said Schultz, who has been the district’s CEO since late 2016.

But in order to accomplish that goal, a resolution offered by the Riverside County Board of Supervisors must be approved by LAFCO—and, LAFCO has indicated to the DHCD board that it would only support a proposal that was accompanied by a list of potential quantifiable funding sources.

The district has estimated it will need to increase its yearly budget by about $4 million in order to provide the new expanded territory with the same level of services it delivers to its current, smaller district. But so far, in the district’s search for increased revenue sources, it can only point to a generous, but limited, self-funding commitment: In late February, the DHCD board announced a $300,000 per year donation, which would last for a period of 20 years, equaling a total investment of $6 million. Will that be enough for LAFCO to sign off and allow the initiative to be placed on the ballot? “I can’t conjecture at this point what the LAFCO staff is going to say in its analysis,” Shultz said. “I can’t conjecture what the LAFCO commission is going to say when it gets to vote on that staff report.”

Garcia said the LAFCO commission’s opinions may not matter.

“In the law, LAFCO was stripped of its (ability) to deny the actual application,” Garcia said. “Therefore, their process is very procedurally driven. There is nothing in that process that can cause this application to be declined. So, what the job of both the Desert Healthcare District and Riverside County has been, is to identify a (single) funding source to get the DHCD expansion up and going. Given those circumstances, we believe now that, with the recent action taken by the DHCD (to allocate and accrue a self-funded total of $300,000 annually for 20 years), they’ve done that. They’ve identified a funding source—perhaps not the total amount that would be the ultimate operating budget of the expanded health care district, but it certainly is enough to get some programs up and going. And they’ve identified a series of other funding sources that would be able to augment the level of commitment that they’ve made. So, from all perspectives on this end, we are on track to meet the goals of the bill and to be able to give the voters of eastern Coachella Valley the opportunity to expand the health care district.”

Riverside County Supervisor V. Manuel Perez said he expected the forward momentum toward the expansion to continue.

“We’re taking it step by step, or bite by bite, if you will,” Perez said. “The first thing we have to do is get this resolution through LAFCO. We’ve finally got the language down for the resolution. It’s going to go to LAFCO when they meet (potentially on April 26). We’re very committed to this effort. This is an ongoing struggle that goes back many years—and as a person growing up on the eastside (of Coachella Valley), I can say that obviously, the time has come.”

With all the parties coming together, it appears the objective of providing more inclusive health-care services throughout Coachella Valley may be within reach.

“There are no guarantees, obviously,” Schultz said. “But the important thing is that this process has brought together what we call the ‘One Coachella Valley’ approach. It’s not about the west, and it’s not about the east. It’s about the valley.”

Garcia said he’s confident things will work out.

“The reality is that, if and when the voters approve this expansion, the DHCD’s entire (current) $7 million annual operating budget will become part of the (new overall) DHCD operating budget. So it isn’t going to be that $7 million will be only for the west valley, while $300,000 is used for the east valley. It will be a budget that encompasses everything. … The desire to increase the budget in order to reach more people is the goal that’s on the minds of the DHCD leadership. I believe we’ll get there.”

Published in Local Issues

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