"Patient dumping" could cost Sacramento County health facilities under an ordinance being considered by one supervisor.
The county joins the city in examining the discharge of poor people from hospitals and other health facilities to shelters or parks without advance planning.
The practice has come under increasing scrutiny after The Sacramento Bee reported on instances in which patients ended up being driven to homeless shelters that were not expecting them. Advocates also have highlighted the issue and found that the practice is more frequent than previously known.
A survey conducted by the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness found that seven agencies that serve homeless people have received recently released patients without prior arrangements.
Supervisor Patrick Kennedy said he first wants to have a conversation with local hospitals and medical facilities. He said it is important to get their perspective and know their official policies.
At the same time, he said he has asked the county counsel to look at Los Angeles' 2008 ordinance aimed at curbing patient dumping - an approach that the city of Sacramento is also considering.
"I haven’t gotten a lot of complaints, but it is a serious enough allegation … that if it is happening we need to put policies in place that will stop it from happening in the future," Kennedy said.
He said the L.A. ordinance was a reasonable measure, with enough of a stick to "discourage that type of thing from happening."
The L.A. ordinance prohibits a health facility from transporting a patient or causing a patient to be transported to a location other than the patient's residence or a bona fide health facility without written consent.
Each violation of the L.A. ordinance is a misdemeanor subject to a fine of up to $1,000, three years' probation or both.
Earlier this week, Sacramento City Councilman Steve Hansen asked the city to explore an ordinance cracking down on patient dumping.
“The tragic stories of homeless people being dumped on our streets after release from hospitals and jails requires a strong response from the city and our partners,” Hansen told The Bee.
An official from Sutter Health said the hospital system doesn't "dump" patients and has programs in place to address homelessness.
"Our Sutter hospitals take this very seriously and have always released every patient with a safe discharge plan," said Holly Harper, external affairs director for Sutter Health Valley Area.
But Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, said his group's survey found the practice of patient dumping rampant.
"It's a very regular occurrence, hospitals releasing patients to the streets," Erlenbusch said. “The streets (are) not a place to send people.”
He said the county needs to add recuperative beds but ultimately the hospital has a responsibility to ensure patients have a stable place to recover. He said he supports big fines to stop the practice of sending patients to parks or shelters without making advance arrangements.