Northern California Medical Associates, the largest physician-owned health care provider in Sonoma County, will stop operating in May, apparently the first North Bay caregiver to shutter amid the strain of the yearlong coronavirus pandemic.

The independent group ― composed of 22 doctors in 12 offices in Sonoma and Mendocino counties specializing in family medicine, cardiology and rheumatology― had been struggling many months to remain afloat.

Complying with insurance company requirements, staving off competition from large hospitals that operate physician practices and weathering a string of devastating annual wildfire seasons dealt damaging blows.

Ultimately, the challenges of providing patient care during the pandemic triggered the decision last fall to unwind the company, President Dr. Thomas Dunlap, a cardiologist, said Monday.

“When COVID came along with the marked reduction in medical operations, that’s what really pushed us over the brink,” Dunlap said of the medical enterprise that started in 1975.

The disbanding health care group is working to ensure its thousands of local patients can keep their doctors once the company is officially dissolved on May 2, Dunlap said.

The company will lay off 151 employees, according to state workforce filings submitted in early March.

Around that time, the health care provider group became the victim of an online ransomware attack that prevented it from accessing patients’ medical records. Through its insurance company, the group paid for information technology professionals and a law firm to successfully restore the records. No patient information was comprised or disseminated online, Dunlap said.

Northern California Medical Associates’ physicians are in the process of joining other health networks, including Providence St. Joseph Health, owner of Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, the county’s largest medical center, or establishing their own private practices.

In September, the company hired an outside human resources firm to help its medical and administrative staff find new jobs. Most of the staff members will be able to continue working with the same doctors in other places, Dunlap said.

The closure comes after health care providers across the country experienced huge financial losses last year, as people delayed doctor appointments and medical procedures to keep from catching the virus.

Last April, the number of visits for outpatient services dropped by 60% in the U.S. as public health orders in California and elsewhere halted elective procedures at the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, according to a report by the Commonwealth Fund, a philanthropic health care organization.

While large area players in the medical arena like St. Joseph Health, Kaiser Permanente and Sutter Health can endure the downturn, independent caregivers with far fewer patients are at a grave financial disadvantage.

“The pandemic and COVID is having a lasting impact on our smaller health providers,” said Wendy Young, executive director of the nonprofit Sonoma County Medical Association. “… You have patients who are still fearful of going back to see their doctors.”

Young said a longstanding trend of consolidation among hospitals and physician groups nationwide means that far fewer small doctor practices exist today than in years past.

The large health care networks, often owned by hospital systems, can usually offer better pay and benefits, which often lure away doctors from independent providers, a difficulty Dunlap acknowledged.

“Part of the thing that pushed into this position is that the larger systems can recruit people and offer more financial stability,” he said.

Even so, Dunlap is glad that some of the Northern California Medical Associates’ physicians will continue practicing under the umbrella of those big providers ― and bring their patients with them.

“They’re all going to be cared for,” Dunlap said.

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at [email protected] or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian