West County doctors are bracing for the arrival of HMO giant Kaiser Permanente, saying they fear that the multibillion-dollar nonprofit will monopolize the local health insurance market.

"Kaiser is huge with huge financial resources," said Gary Proffett, medical director of SeaView IPA, an organization with 110 independent physicians. "They could buy the local market by keeping prices low so employers would then start offering only Kaiser to their employees. This will be about the survival of independent physicians and the patients' choice of choosing your doctor."

Proffett and others said Monday that the medical community has been buzzing for months with rumors that Kaiser was buying Buenaventura Medical Group, the county's largest and oldest multispecialty group. On Friday, that rumor was confirmed.

"For many, their employers won't offer Kaiser, at least not within the next six months, so we expect to see many, many people scrambling to find another doctor," said Lynn Stratton, president of Med3000, the national healthcare company that provides management services for SeaView.

Stratton said she is working with SeaView's current doctors to find ways to expand their practices, increase hours and hire new doctors to handle the expected influx. SeaView currently contracts with 10 health plans covering 75,000 patients.

Proffett said he was not surprised by the acquisition, even though buying a medical group is unusual for Kaiser. Historically, Kaiser contracts with existing physician groups and hospitals in a community where it does not have its own facilities.

Until last year, Kaiser contracted with both BMG and SeaView for healthcare for 13,000 enrollees. In November, both groups were notified that the contracts would be canceled in 2006 because Kaiser planned to build its own clinics in Oxnard and Ventura. To Proffett, it was a sign that big plans were being made to penetrate the local health insurance market.

"My next what-if is will they build a new hospital?" he said. "Kaiser doesn't have a routine of doing this. They've never bought a medical group before. I know when they have a certain mass of patients, they will need their own bricks and mortar. I would have my antenna turned on."

For local members needing hospitalization, Kaiser continues to contract with Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura and Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Woodland Hills. A contract with St. John's Regional Medical Center in Oxnard and St. John's Pleasant Valley Hospital in Camarillo expired Friday.

St. John's officials issued a press release stating that BMG patients would be accepted for non-emergency care until Jan. 1. After that, unless a new contract is negotiated, patients will have to go either to Community Memorial or Kaiser's hospital in Woodland Hills.

Jim Anderson, spokesman for Kaiser, said a new contract with St. John's hospitals is in the works and "hopefully will be in effect in the next few months."

Under the purchase deal, BMG's clinics in Ventura, Oxnard and Camarillo will transfer to Kaiser ownership. It is not clear yet what will happen to BMG's office employees, nor how many of the group's 62 physicians will choose to join Kaiser.

"The transaction is so new, the details are still being worked out," said Dr. Manuel Marquez, BMG's medical director. "We'll be having several meetings and planning sessions."

Meanwhile, other physicians in the community are expecting quite a bit of turmoil in the next few months as employers and patients sort out their healthcare future and size up the new player on the block.

"This is the biggest insurance-directed shift for patients seeking their care in this community I've seen," said Dr. Edward Banman, whose group of four physicians treats about 10,000 patients a year. "I respect Kaiser. They'll be tough competition. That can be good for patients. We'll just have to wait and see."

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