In the light-filled atrium of the Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley, nearly 200 people gathered for a town hall meeting assembled by the California Nurses Association (CNA). Over half of the attendees were outfitted in red scrub tops and t-shirts that distinguished them as nurses’ union members, but all were there to rally against the closure of the Alta Bates Campus in Berkeley.
Sutter Health, which runs the campus as part of its Alta Bates Summit Medical Center based in Oakland, announced last October that it intends to close the campus between 2018 and 2030 and consolidate all services in its Oakland campus. Throughout the meeting, the audience regularly erupted into chants of “Save Alta Bates!”
The evening’s speakers, seated on stage, included the union’s treasurer, Martha Kuhl; director of health and safety Bonnie Castillo; president and Kaiser nurse Zenei Cortez; Alta Bates Neonatal Intensive Care Unit nurse and El Cerrito City Council candidate Rochelle Pardue-Okimoto; Berkeley mayoral candidate Jesse Arreguin; California Assemblymember Tony Thurmond (D-Oakland); and former Berkeley mayor Gus Newport.
The event came one day after the Oakland City Council and two days after the Richmond City Council both voted to oppose the closure of the hospital, a symbolic although unanimous gesture. The Berkeley City Council passed a similar resolution in July.
The speakers touched on the negative effects they believe a hospital closure would have, including an emotional loss to the community. “Saving Alta Bates is near and dear to me,” said Pardue-Okimoto from stage. “My husband was born there. My two sons were born there. Chances are you were born there, or maybe your children. If not, it’s likely you have been treated there, or have loved ones who have been treated there. Or maybe you’re simply here because you care about saving your community hospital.”
Sutter Health spokesperson Carolyn Kemp released a statement on Wednesday saying that this planned closure is a necessary adaptation to changes in the way patients receive care nationally, with fewer hospital stays and more visits to outpatient and surgery centers. “We cannot operate two full-service hospitals less than three miles apart if we want to remain a viable, affordable health care organization,” the document states. “In addition, the Alta Bates campus is not seismically compliant in 2030, and will not be allowed to operate as a hospital.”
The statement refers to a law introduced in 1994 requiring all hospitals to be seismically retrofitted or rebuilt to withstand a magnitude 6.0 to 6.9 earthquake. Under the law, all acute care facility buildings must be secure enough to remain fully functional after such an event. Of the 18 hospital campuses in Alameda County, 12 have received seismic retrofitting extensions to the year 2030, according to the most recent Seismic Deadline Extension Requests records from California’s Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development.
In an interview after the town hall meeting, Kuhl said that the CNA was the force behind the retrofitting law in 1994, “and then the hospitals got legislatures to delay and delay and delay the implementation on each of the hospitals and they got extension after extension, and they fought us every step of the way.” She said she doesn’t believe Sutter Health would need any additional funding to retrofit the Alta Bates campus. “To me, that was a question of putting their financial accounting ahead of patient safety. And this is just one more example of it, that they want to close rather than rebuild,” Kuhl said.
The Sutter Health statement indicates that after the move to Oakland, the institution intends to retain all of its services and provide access to “a new, larger Emergency Room able to handle the combined capacity of two smaller hospitals; access to new operating rooms and a new ICU, all with the latest technology available.”
“Before 2030, it is our vision to combine our two smaller hospitals into one strong, robust, regional medical center capable of serving the larger health care needs of a broader community that stretches from Pinole east to Orinda, south to Hayward and includes Oakland and Berkeley,” the statement continues.
But town hall speakers challenged the feasibility and reliability of Sutter’s vision. “We are the only hospital that delivers babies between Vallejo and Oakland,” said Pardue-Okimoto of the Alta-Bates campus.
“If Alta Bates closes, there will be no emergency room and acute care hospital between Kaiser Richmond and Summit in downtown Oakland,” said Arreguin, the Berkeley council candidate.
Hospital records indicate that in 2014, 6,544 infants were born at Alta Bates, and 39,844 people visited Alta Bates’ emergency room. The proposed regional medical center would need to absorb these patients.
Some CNA members believe this is an unfeasible task. Health and safety director Castillo referred to Sutter’s 1999 merger of Berkeley’s two Alta Bates Hospitals and Oakland’s three Summit Hospitals, and said that at the time “Sutter repeatedly assured the public, as we’ve started seeing them do now, that services would not be cut but instead would be enhanced. But quite the opposite has proved to be true.”
She also expressed concerns that the merger would affect health care costs. She said that former California State Attorney Bill Lockyer attempted to block the merger, “fearing that the merger would create a health care monopoly which would allow it to consolidate and cutback on services and increase prices.”
Castillo cited findings from a 2008 Federal Trade Commission study of the merger, which states, “Our results show that Summit’s price increase was among the largest of any comparable hospital in California, indicating this transaction may have been anticompetitive.”
“We cannot sacrifice our health to a business model that does not address our community need,” Castillo said.
Sutter Health’s statement said the company will expand its medical presence in Berkeley in the form of primary care, outpatient care, and urgent care centers. The statement said that Sutter Health is also investing in community partnerships that will “ensure greater access to primary care for underserved members of our community.”
Pardue-Okimoto said that Sutter’s plan to beef up its outpatient and urgent care facilities in Berkeley is misleading. She said that residents are told that “urgent care centers can pick up where emergency rooms leave off. Posing urgent care centers as one of the solutions to Alta Bates possibly leaving Berkeley is actually dangerous and offensive. With this model of care, the public is led to believe that emergencies will be taken care of nearby. That’s not true.”
She continued, “Emergency rooms need to be easily accessible to other units such as maternity, surgery, and ICU. As part of a functioning body, its existence outside of the hospital would only be endangering patients, not saving them.”
Assemblymember Thurmond said that the closure will affect Richmond, particularly because of the recent closure of Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo. “Many in our community are driving 45 minutes for an emergency, or to see a doctor,” he said. “As we speak, now there are 200 ambulances leaving the West Contra Costa County area to come to this area because there is no hospital.”
An even longer drive to emergency care would be debilitating, he said, adding, “What they fail to realize is that part of keeping a community healthy is having healthy institutions to care for the people.”
The Richmond City Council’s opposition resolution noted that the 2015 closure of Doctors Medical Center left Kaiser Richmond Medical Center as the only emergency room between Martinez and Berkeley, which led to an over 25 percent increase in emergency room visits to Kaiser Richmond. The Alta Bates closure, the resolution stated, would put an even greater strain on Richmond’s hospital.
The resolution also made note of potential public health threats that the entire Bay Area faces, including severe earthquakes, wildfires and industrial chemical releases, “all of which require emergency services at an acute care hospital.”
“The impact on Oakland would be immense,” said Kuhl. “Because there are fewer and fewer hospitals and more population in the state of California, it means delayed care. And sometimes delayed care can result in preventable injury and even death.” She described the already-lengthy wait times at Alta Bates Summit and at Children’s Hospital Oakland, where she works, adding, “As nurses, we can’t tolerate that.”
In a video message screened during the meeting, actor and activist Danny Glover expressed his concern that the closure of Alta Bates would lead to diminished access to health care. “We need to do everything we can to make sure we have health care for all. We have to demand that Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley remain open,” he said.
Audience members from Berkeley, Richmond, and Oakland also stood to voice their own concerns with or ask questions about the potential hospital closure.
“Alta Bates shaped me, it honed me,” said Rev. Carol Estes, a former Alta Bates chaplain and current palliative care chaplain at Kaiser. “This is a moral disservice. We need to raise our voice.”
The meeting closed with a song, “We Shall Not Be Moved,” with the audience joining in chorus.