Foundation shelves childbirth center plans

The San Mateo Medical Center Foundation may be forced to return up to $1 million in donations raised for the construction of a birthing center at the county hospital after the hospital’s governing board effectively killed the plan Thursday.

The plan, devised four years ago, was tabled, meaning it won’t be raised again any time in the near future, officials said.

The county-run hospital and its foundation were considering spending $9.8 million to renovate an unused wing of the center to fill a gap in delivery services and bring in much-needed revenue.

The foundation has spent the past two years raising about $5.5 million, including a $4 million contribution from the Keller family for the birthing center. While the Kellers have committed to allowing the funds to be used for other county health care needs, the foundation will have to offer to return the remaining contributions and grants, Executive Director Peggy Lucas said.

“If that was the only thing [contributors] wanted to spend the money on, then we will return the gift,” Lucas said.

Jerry Hill, a hospital board member and president of the Board of Supervisors, said the decision to table the plan was sad. Board members’ biggest concerns centered around ongoing reductions in the state’s reimbursements for infant delivery services, which could end up costing the county instead of increasing revenue.

“I think, in looking at this, there are too many gambles,” Hill said.

The Medical Center, which provides pre- and postnatal care for as many as 1,000 of the county’s 2,300 Medi-Cal births a year, has no obstetrics center. That forces expectant mothers to deliver their babies at surrounding hospitals, often among doctors they don’t know, hospital spokesman Dave Hook said.

Original figures estimated that a birthing center would make several hundred thousand dollars a year for the Medical Center, which required a $65 million subsidy from the county this year alone. But more recent estimates showed the projected margin wasn’t enough to ensure the future of the business model, officials said.

The Medical Center and Foundation now plan to shift their search for revenue sources elsewhere.

“We have to bring more revenue into this hospital or its fate is very, very clear: We won’t be here,” Medical Center CEO Nancy Steiger said.

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