The Antelope Valley is one of Southern California’s largest geographical regions, but the area lacks a sufficient number of large-scale medical facilities to serve its rapidly increasing population. A Los Angeles development firm plans to remedy this problem by building state-of-the art facilities near the middle of town.

Thomas Partners Properties in Los Angeles announced this month that it will build a new “wellness village” called The Oasis next to Palmdale Regional Medical Center. The development firm is partnering with a number of nationally-renowned leaders in healthcare to provide safe, reliable and brand-name medical providers. Groundbreaking is expected in June 2016.

The Oasis will be a 420,000-square-foot development spanning just over 17.5 acres and will include multiple “health districts,” which will be designed to promote physical and mental wellness to provide a continuum of care in addition to hospitality, retail and dining opportunities. The preliminary price tag is a little more than $200 million, and the project is expected to create several thousand jobs during the construction and operational phases. Thomas Partners said the development will incorporate a variety of [proposed] public amenities and infrastructure components such as a public pavilion, parking, pedestrian areas, specific signage for the various venues, an “upscale-style” decor, and full landscaping. The development will also resemble a “spa-like” environment and feature new technologies such as a way to streamline check-in electronically with the latest “smart check-in” facilities said to cut down on delays during registration.

Addressing local ‘healthcare crisis’

Palmdale officials are excited about the prospect of the city receiving additional healthcare services, given that the area is statistically among the state’s most porous in terms of large hospitals. The California Medical Association (CMA) maintains a “standards of doctor-to-patient” ratio chart that signals the Antelope Valley is in a healthcare crisis because residents are dramatically undeserved. As more households spring up by the year, the medical association has found that the region needs about double the amount of doctors to fix the problem. The Oasis is said to have the potential to alleviate some of that pressure by recruiting a legion of physicians and other medical practitioners from some of the nation’s best-known healthcare brands.

“This is a true healthcare success story,” said Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford. “We have a healthcare crisis in the Antelope Valley, and The Oasis is turning that crisis into an opportunity to promote better health and enhanced healthcare for everyone.”

According to John Thomas, president of the development firm, The Oasis is a fortuitous addition to the Antelope Valley that couldn’t arrive any sooner.

“This is the future of healthcare in America,” Thomas said. “The Oasis wellness village will bring together the world’s finest physicians, with everything from imaging and physical therapy to yoga and even farmers markets. This is the true integration of health and wellness.”

By forging an early relationship with Palmdale Regional Medical Center, Thomas said, news of the proposed development has resulted in an exciting relationship. “We have been pleased to have had extensive conversations with our neighbor, Palmdale Regional Medical Center, and are hopeful that they will be an active participant in The Oasis. Based on our meetings, it is clear our vision at TPP is consistent with the hospital’s long-term master plan. We look forward to working together with the hospital and the city to help make The Oasis become a reality.”

“Perfect fit” for Antelope Valley

Thomas Partners, a family-owned firm, has owned the land in Palmdale for more than 60 years. They believe The Oasis is a perfect fit now that Covered California is in effect. Also, one of the biggest reasons for construction is because such a large parcel of viable land acreage within the county is difficult to find. Outpatient services will be a priority, thereby relieving many Antelope Valley residents of the chore of commuting into Los Angeles for their health care needs.

“I’d been looking at this land that we have for some time now,” Thomas explained. “And we were considering the Affordable Care Act as well, along with the direction of healthcare in America, and I thought that we could do something special here … you simply don’t find acreage like this on campus with a new hospital. There isn’t a lot of new hospital construction taking place within the county, and the hospitals that already exist have campuses that have been built out. This concept is rare; the closest one like this is located in Henderson, Nev.”

A portion of Palmdale Regional Medical Center has been reportedly leased by Thomas (no disclosure about who will move in), but the development president said that he wants to make the wellness center a type of gathering place for residents that can inspire a sense health and wellbeing daily. An example would be a proposed women’s day spa where individuals can get a manicure or pedicure prior to undergoing an health examination. Weekends will feature farmers markets, outdoor movies and yoga instruction.

“There are few places in the Antelope Valley that serve as a community center,” Thomas said, “and there wasn’t anywhere a person could simply take a walk, enjoy the natural environment all under the ‘umbrella’ of a wellness community. This can be a place that instills pride in the community … not just a place to go see the doctor.”

A growing medical community

The Antelope Valley has some of the county’s newest medical facilities, including Kaiser Permanente and City of Hope, along with Antelope Valley Hospital and Palmdale Regional Medical Center. But some of these facilities are reportedly being stretched thin because of increased enrollment in Medi-Cal and the steady stream of Covered California enrollees. The California Healthcare Foundation (CHF) reported that from 1993 to 2011, the number of physicians in California has increased by 39 percent, outpacing the state’s 20-percent increase in population. But the demand for more medical practitioners remains because Covered California and the state’s aging population has led to a rise in persons seeking medical care.

The Los Angeles County Department of Health has been busy the last few years redesigning its extensive county-operated healthcare delivery system, which includes hospitals, outpatient centers, and primary care clinics in collaboration with private hospitals and community health centers. These changes are intended to help both public and private safety-net providers remain financially viable, use existing capacity efficiently to serve more patients, and improve patient care.

A raft of hospital closures has also taken place throughout the county since 2000. While no hospitals have closed since 2008, a number of them have changed ownership or have affiliated with larger systems. For instance, Providence acquired Tarzana Regional Medical Center from Tenet in 2008, and Ascension Health purchased St. Francis hospital in Lynwood and St. Vincent in Los Angeles in 2012. The CHF has said that these new partnerships are geared toward serving patients in more efficient settings that may contain costs. These efficiency measures include referring more routine admissions to less expensive community hospitals and more specialized cases to higher-cost teaching facilities.

The county health department can’t put an exact number on how many doctors presently serve the 380,000 residents of the Antelope Valley; much of this area spanning roughly 2,200 square miles is not largely populated. The health department issued a statement to Our Weekly about the health concerns of Antelope Valley residents:

“Public health (officials) understands how important it is for Antelope Valley residents to have high-quality healthcare, including access to both primary care and specialty care. We continue to work with healthcare providers and physicians to support approaches that protect health and improve the health of our community.”

Not enough doctors

Two years ago the Association of American Medical Colleges revealed that just 16 of California’s 58 counties have the federal government’s recommended supply of primary care physicians, with the Inland Empire and the San Joaquin Valley facing the worst shortages. Also, nearly 30 percent of the state’s doctors are nearing retirement age, representing the highest percentage in the nation. Tens of thousands of California healthcare professionals, such as physician assistants, nurse practitioners, pharmacists and optometrists, contend that they cannot fully put their training to use, as they are generally not allowed to diagnose medical conditions, perform surgery or order prescriptions.

The CMA insists that healthcare workers can better serve the medical community when deployed in doctor-led teams. This allows them to perform routine examinations and prescribe medications in consultation with physicians on the premises or, sometimes, by teleconference.

Dr. Paul Phinney, former president of CMA, said that allowing certain health workers to set up independent practices would create voids in the clinics, hospitals and offices where they presently work. The CMA has proposed a different solution to bridge the gap between licensed physicians and the increasing county population: They’d like more funding to expand participation in a loan repayment program for recent medical school graduates. Doctors can now receive up to $105,000 in return for practicing for three years in underserved communities.

“This is a practical solution to the shortage of doctors,” Phinney said. “Patient safety should always trump access concerns.”

The U.S. Senate reported in 2013 that the nation is short approximately 166,000 primary care physicians. The federal government has a system of “scoring” areas based on the number of health providers in specific areas, among other criteria. If an area’s shortage of providers is big enough, primary care providers who choose to work there can qualify for the medical school loan repayment or even forgiveness of the loans.

“It’s workforce development,” said Nina Vaccaro, executive director of the Southside Coalition of Community Health Clinics, which operates in some of the county’s most medically underserved regions. “It’s a great way to recruit doctors that want to come to work in a low-income area, or (regions) which are experiencing a shortage of qualified physicians. This is significant when you’re looking at areas with not a lot of doctors and a lot of people living there.”

The Oasis seeks to address these issues as the county population gets larger, older and now has increased access to medical insurance.

“We know that we’ll be a good community partner,” Thomas said. “That’s one of the reasons why the hospital and the city of Palmdale were an attractive investment.”