Liability issue causes temporary closure of Pacific Grove’s hyperbaric chamber.
Thursday, July 12, 2012
A narrow room in Pacific Grove’s Fire Station #4 contains what looks like a tiny orange submarine. This is the city’s hyperbaric chamber, which supplies pure oxygen at higher-than-atmospheric pressures. For divers with decompression sickness and victims of carbon monoxide poisoning, it can be a lifesaver.
But P.G.’s liability policy bars it from operating medical facilities, including the chamber. On June 19, officials suspended the chamber’s operations and converted its part-time employees to volunteers.
The city is now looking for a partner to provide malpractice insurance for chamber operations. With another entity as the lead, P.G. could serve as the landlord, City Manager Tom Frutchey says.
Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula has two hyperbaric chambers, according to CHOMP spokeswoman Brenda Moore, but those are used primarily to treat hard-to-heal wounds. CHOMP and P.G. have discussed a potential partnership but have not made recent progress.
Divers Alert Network is another candidate. “We’re collaborating with the city manager’s office, but we have not yet found a workable solution,” DAN spokeswoman Rachelle Deal says.
The city has been offering hyperbaric chamber treatments since 1963, according to P.G. Management Analyst Polly Fry. The first accommodated one patient at a time, but the second, acquired in 1984, is big enough to fit several patients and medical attendants.
Seventeen part-time employees on the hyperbaric chamber team – including technicians, operators, nurses and physicians – worked at a rate of $9-11 per hour, according to Fry, and were on call for emergencies before the closure.
“It’s a labor of love for a lot of people,” Frutchey says. “They come running.”
The chamber’s treated an average of five patients per year since 2000, Fry reports. But only two (a diver with an air embolism and a carbon monoxide victim) used it in 2011-12.
The city took a loss on the chamber’s operations last year, spending about $3,900 and generating $1,800.
Frutchey stresses that the temporary shutdown is not a budget issue. P.G. is a member of the Public Agency Risk Sharing Authority of California, which purchases tort liability insurance policies on behalf of 36 California cities, and the PARSAC policy precludes P.G. from providing medical services of any kind.
“The operation of the chamber exposes the city to medical malpractice,” says PARSAC Risk Manager Kin Ong.
P.G. has been a PARSAC member for years, Ong adds, and that prohibition isn’t new. Neither he nor Frutchey knows why the issue is only coming up now.
While the city seeks a partner on the hyperbaric chamber, its now-all-volunteer staff continues training. “We’re confident something is going to break,” Frutchey says. “This is too important for the Peninsula.”