Tulare Regional Medical Center has been closed since the end of October 2017 due to financial problems. File Photo

published on April 20, 2018 - 12:13 PM
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Following the decision last week for Tulare Local Healthcare District (TLHCD) to settle its lawsuits with Healthcare Conglomerate Associates (HCCA), the Tulare community is waging an uphill battle to get Tulare Regional Medical Center (TRMC) up and running again.

One group involved in this effort is Tulare group Citizens for Hospital Accountability. Among its members are Deanne Martin-Soares, a former TRMC nurse and member of the District board from 2000 to 2008 and Patricia Drilling-Phelps, a local dentist.

“I think that it’s probably the worst thing that’s happened in Tulare, in my opinion, and that’s why I got involved,” Drilling-Phelps said. “There was a failed racetrack — different projects, anyway — that had problems, but this by far is more involved and more corrupt.”

The racetrack in question is the Tulare Motor Sports Complex, a failed NASCAR speedway and retail development that was proposed for the city and abandoned in 2011.

Last October, a federal judge allowed the board to end its contract with HCCA, which is run by Dr. Yorai “Benny” Benzeevi. Benzeevi’s company, which managed TRMC, has been blamed by many in Tulare for the current state of the hospital, which went bankrupt last year.

“Nurses were telling me that they didn’t have supplies. They were saying that things were duct-taped together, equipment didn’t work,” Drilling-Phelps said. “I had a surgeon tell me that the suction in the OR worked about 50 percent of the time.”

According to Drilling-Phelps, the surgeon also claimed that the staff had difficulty finding equipment that wasn’t already on the tray due to the frequent turnover rates.

The Business Journal reached out to Iddo Benzeevi’s office for comment, but did not receive a reply. The Business Journal also reached out to Baker & Hostetler, LLP, the Los Angeles law firm representing HCCA and Benny Benzeevi, which refused to comment.

The District selected HCCA to run the hospital, signing an agreement in 2014. Other potential companies considered for the management contract included Adventist Health and Alecto Healthcare Services.

“There were very good candidates… and at the eleventh hour comes a fifth person, and its Benzeevi,” Martin-Soares said. “They were let in at the very eleventh hour and they ended up being the ones selected and they weren’t even an entity.”

A former ER doctor at TRMC, Benzeevi was selected over the competition despite, as his opponents have pointed out, having never before run a hospital. The reasons for Benzeevi’s appointment have been subjected to speculation, but the Citizens for Hospital Accountability have suggested that the reason may be because the District hoped HCCA could complete the failed Tower One construction project with the help of Dr. Benzeevi’s brother, Iddo.

Intimidation tactics

In the Inland Empire city of Moreno Valley, Iddo Benzeevi has gained a reputation as an ambitious land developer. Meanwhile, his opponents have alleged that Iddo will go to any lengths necessary to get what he wants—and that he isn’t afraid to throw money around.

“It’s not the way most developers work. I think the disruption of the community has been particularly unsettling,” said Penny Newman, a candidate for the Riverside County Board of Supervisors. “They control everybody who would stand and oppose.”

On one occasion, financial records published by Buzzfeed reporter Jessica Garrison show a political action committee backed by Iddo spent more than $60,000 to unseat a Moreno Valley city councilman who had conducted a survey of his district’s support regarding the building of a Skechers warehouse and distribution center in 2008. A California 460 Form for political funding shows that in that same year, his company, Highland Fairview, spent more than $260,000 in donations and loans towards Moreno Valley elections.

“Iddo’s been around for a long time and none of his projects have ever come to fruition,” Newman said, adding that the Skechers warehouse was the first one. “Iddo has not been really effective other than creating a great deal of mistrust and animosity within the community.”

Newman, who founded the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, said that the organization is attempting to put a halt on Iddo’s latest project, the World Logistics Center, a 40.6 million-square foot warehouse space. Newman, however, said their efforts have been met with harsh opposition by Iddo and Highland Fairview.

In one incident in 2015, volunteers attempted to gather the needed signatures to put a referendum up to vote, when, according to a report by the Center for Community Action, they were met by eight people carrying bullhorns and shouting obscenities.

“They were vulgar, rude, disrespectful, unprofessional,” said one of the signers, a Moreno Valley resident, on Facebook. “Literally called me names for signing the petition and called one of the signature gatherers the ‘N’ word, called me fat and stupid and said my/our vote is ‘one’ and doesn’t even count.”

“It’s pretty much difficult to have any civil discussion with anyone,” Newman said. “It’s really just impossible to have any rational conversation about it.”

Iddo and Benny in Tulare

When HCCA was selected to run the hospital, one of the primary concerns was the completion of the construction of the Tower One expansion project at the hospital, which had come to a halt amidst financial trouble. The Citizens for Hospital Accountability argue that Iddo was at the heart of this selling point.

Minute reports from a Dec. 4, 2013 meeting of the Board of Directors read that HCCA had “a mega-scale project developer” included in their “nationally renowned team” of experts.

“This was how they sold it, really,” Drilling-Phelps said. “While Benny has never done anything — this is kind of the idea — we have all these top, top guys. We’re going to bring in the best CEO, we’ve got the best people in the business. We can bring in this guy who’s built this Sketchers warehouse.”

The minute report also shows Iddo being asked by a community member about any projects that he started without finishing.

“Iddo Benzeevi is not in health care, he’s in construction,” the report reads, “and has completed one of the largest buildings in the nation.”

Iddo added there were no lawsuits and “nobody is suing us.”

“He’s the personable one. He’s the guy that can convince you,” Drilling-Phelps said. “Benny is kind of antisocial. He yells at his staff and yelled at patients. I don’t think he’s well liked in general. Iddo is smoother.”

Upon being asked if HCCA anticipated being able to complete the tower, they responded that they did not know what the issues were yet, but that they had the expertise.

“He went from being [on] the staff, head of the doctors for the emergency room,” Martin-Soares said. “In less than seven months, he’s new the CEO of the hospital.”

Editor’s note: This story is the first of a series with a look at how Tulare Local Healthcare District’s relationship with Healthcare Conglomerate Associates led to the bankruptcy and closing of Tulare Regional Medical Center.

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