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27 Mar 2018

Going Beyond Cook Street: A Long-Fought-For Valley-Wide Expansion of the Desert Healthcare District Continues to Clear Hurdles

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Desert Healthcare District CEO Herb Schultz: “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.” Desert Healthcare District CEO Herb Schultz: “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.” Kevin Fitzgerald

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.”

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