Editorial: Santa Clara Valley Health System Needs Its Own Independent Board 

By all measures, Santa Clara County should have been better prepared to send the coronavirus packing. The county spends $3.9 billion a year on its public healthcare system—$1.2 billion more than it spent four years ago.

It’s also home to the renowned Stanford Medical School and healthcare system, as well as hundreds of biomedical and testing companies and private hospitals run by HCA Healthcare, El Camino Health and Kaiser.

The county operates a massive tax-supported medical system. It spent $235 million to buy two hospitals last year, and before that, $465 million on a new Valley Medical Center hospital that opened in 2017 after cost overruns and delays. Taxpayers supported increased underwriting of the healthcare system with $840 million in bonds in 2008 and 2012’s half-billion dollar Measure A sales tax, which Mike Wasserman, to his credit, was the only supervisor to oppose.

With all that cash, shiny new buildings and the latest equipment, we should have been golden. When the key turned in the Ferrari’s ignition, though, it stalled in the driveway.

On March 14, our team asked how many Santa Clara County residents had been tested for COVID-19. County health officials stalled for nine days.

So we asked the county executive, Jeff Smith, who in addition to running the county’s largest employer, after Apple and Google, happens to be an M.D. After he scrambled to collect the data, he released the embarrassing results.

Just 647 of the county’s 2 million people had been tested.

Smith believes the county’s actual infected population as of Tuesday is closer to 10,000, rather than the official count of 459 announced earlier this week. After we asked, Santa Clara and seven Bay Area counties issued a public health order requiring all laboratories, including private ones, to disclose all of their test results to local public health officials, so we can get some reliable numbers based on sample sizes.

You can’t have a numerator without a denominator, which is why the total number of tests, negative and positive, is critical to forecasting the spread.

If Smith’s estimate of 10,000 local COVID-19 infections was in the ballpark, that’s nearly a quarter of Tuesday’s reported 44,183 in the entire United States of America. (The number was 64,675 a day later.) The bigger problem is that we just don’t know.

Despite the billions of dollars that local taxpayers (which includes anyone who pays sales tax) have spent on building out our healthcare system, there are simply not enough beds to attend to the sick and dying patients we may see in coming days. We hope Santa Clara County will not resemble Wuhan, Italy and Spain with tents in parking lots and oversubscribed morgues.

Shamefully, Santa Clara County supervisors have used the healthcare budget as a political slush fund, steering some to political groups and buying pizza for campaign volunteers with money that came from all of us.

The colossal coronavirus failure of 2020 is a clear sign that politics needs to be decoupled from keeping us safe, a truism from Pennsylvania Avenue to West Hedding Street. It’s time to put the $4 billion annual local healthcare system under independent public oversight. It needs its own board, just like Valley Water and VTA, with even more stringent safeguards on spending and conflicts. County supervisors should be firewalled from deriving political benefits from public health spending, plain and simple.

It’s time to put the health and safety of the residents who pay for the system first.

A version of this editorial originally appeared in the Gilroy Dispatch and Morgan Hill Times.

5 Comments

  1. When did the Metro go libertarian. I cant believe you progs are finally waking up to the fact that politicians are grossly incompetent and politics is no way to run a lemonade stand let alone an industry. Maybe a good thing that will come of this is to not trust the government with all the money and all the power.

  2. ” It’s time to put the health and safety of the residents who pay for the system first”.

    SVNR, That would blatantly racist, sexist, homophonic, and xenophobic according to state and locale sanctuary laws laid out by our own duly elected, Politically Correct, band of misinformed left leaning do-gooders.

    Don’t you know this is the results social justice, you get to pay for it, others get to use it.
    Now who will oversee how it’s run? I suppose some Hunter Biden would be glad to help.

  3. This criticism seems the same as what’s being said about our state and national responses — somehow it didn’t turn out well when the crisis came.
    How can anyone hold the Golden Spigot and Valley Transit as examples to follow? If each function is divided into its own fiefdom, it becomes more difficult for the public and even board members to understand. What’s left of local journalism is spread thin enough already.
    And what’s needed in an emergency is executive action, not board deliberation. This was shown early in the history of the United States. Put thoughtful policies in place with sufficient discussion in advance and give the right people the authority to execute them when the time comes.

  4. This is absolutely spot on. From the time the county sups got into the medical business, bought hospitals, fought the AG on antitrust issues and underpaid nurses, the Supervisors showed their hand and their slush fund in the name of public health. Eroding local journalism has compounded the problem.

    We need help from the public, whistleblowers and citizen journalists making public records requests and looking for irregularities in the budget. CEO Jeff Smith, and his top man Steve Preminger, along with County Counsel James Williams , have not been managed by the Supervisors for 10 years. Supervisors are the problem and the most dangerous threat to taxpayers and local residents. Publishers and local news producers have given these elected officials a free pass by and a corrupt district attorney has clogged out courts with petty prosecutions while turning a blind eye to a public corruption for the benefit of his own political career.

    Now people are going to die , lose their livelihoods and public services will evaporate because of gross mismanagement of public resources and incompetent elected officials. This is Silicon Valley and it is more likely than not that history will show China, India and Korea handled this crisis better than Santa Clara County despite all of the money, information and resources our leaders were afforded. We need to listen and watch our elected officials and not just accept the information they put forth in press releases and canned statements engineered to get them re-elected.

    I am informed VMC nursing interns are being told to send patients presenting with symptoms to go to go home and take Tylenol! I of course am heading to VMC to confirm. Taxpayers have spent millions on VMC and patients better get more than Tylenol for their money!

  5. This was disingenuous in the extreme. The county cannot tell you how many residents have been tested if most of those tests were performed by private labs that didn’t disclose that information. The county also could not perform tests if too few test kits were available; under the circumstances, it’s safer to assume anyone with signs of a respiratory illness probably has COVID-19 and only test those with severe illness that require precise diagnosis to guide treatment.

    You could have saved a lot of words by saying simply, “we don’t like our supervisors, and we don’t like paying taxes, but we think we should get better services from the county.”

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