Pending closure of Alta Bates a “perfect storm” for Richmond’s expectant mothers

richmond kaiser

First San Pablo’s Doctors Medical Center closed in 2015.

Now Sutter Health’s Alta Bates hospital in Berkeley is planning to shut its doors.

This means patients in Richmond, who already have fewer hospitals to turn to for critical medical care, could see the options shrink further. Pregnant women and new mothers could be the ones to most acutely feel the squeeze.

Alta Bates hospital, expected to close in 2030, has by far the highest number of live births of any medical center in the region, state government data shows. And it delivers high quality care that women in Richmond and the area have come to count on.

Rachele Savola, a representative for the California Nurses Association, calls the prospect of the Alta Bates closure, “the perfect storm.” Her nurses’ association is publicly campaigning against the closure.

Clayton Warren, a spokesperson for Alta Bates’ parent company Sutter Health, said “there will be no disruption in maternity care or any other clinical services,” when the Berkeley hospital is closed. He said his company is considering building a new maternal care and delivery center adjacent to its Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland, about 3 miles away from the Berkeley site.

Richmond and area communities are already reeling from Doctors hospital shutting its doors three years ago.

More people have been showing up in the emergency room at Richmond Medical Center, which is part of Kaiser Permanente Northern California.

“We’re getting a ton of patients who would never have come to us before, and they’re mostly coming through the emergency department,” says Leah Kihagi, a nurse who’s worked at the Richmond center for 14 years.

Jeff Collins, Senior Vice President and Area Manager for Kaiser Permanente in the East Bay, said the number of emergency department visits at the Richmond center has increased 50 percent since the closure of Doctors, while admissions from the general community have roughly tripled since 2014.

He said “we remain concerned about the limitations of the overall capacity in the community,” even though Kaiser has “invested several million dollars to expand exam rooms to help address the community’s need.”

Kihagi says most of the new patients who show up are either uninsured or waiting to qualify for MediCal, the free or discounted health care program for low-income California residents. She says many come from San Pablo, where the Doctors hospital was located.

Not only are there many more patients now, but they are sicker than before, Kihagi says.

“They’re harder to treat and they need to stay for longer,” she says.

The hospital has tried to address this rising caseload, including by hiring more nurses and putting beds in hallways, despite this being against protocol, several nurses interviewed by RichCon say. Some patients reviewing the hospital on Yelp said they were treated in the ER and given a bed in the hallway. Kaiser did not respond to requests for comment on beds in the hallway.

The Emergency Department only has 28 beds, the nurses interviewed say. And while staffing has increased, the nurses say it’s not enough.

“If there’s an emergency, we’re in bad shape,” says Camla Ramjit, a nurse at the center.

There’s no maternity ward at Kaiser in Richmond, so women who show up in labor are sent to the Kaiser operated Oakland Medical Center if they have Kaiser insurance, explains Guadelupe Reader, a pre-natal counselor who works with women in Richmond, particularly those who are low-income and immigrants.

But if the women in labor are on other insurance plans or have no insurance at all, they are transferred elsewhere, explains Reader. Many end up at Alta Bates, which has also seen an increase in patient numbers since the closure of the Doctors hospital.

As a result of the closure, there was a 24 percent increase in patients visiting the Berkeley Alta Bates campus from Contra Costa County from 2013 to 2016, according to Jason Corburn, a professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health who has been working in Richmond for many years. There’s been a 39 percent increase during the same period when considering only patients from four cities close to the closed Doctors hospital: Richmond, San Pablo, EL Cerrito, and El Sobrante.

In 2016, Alta Bates hospital supported 5,863 live births, more than twice the 2,881 born at Kaiser’s Oakland and Richmond hospitals combined, according California’s Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development, which tracks all of the state’s hospital usage.

There were 2,103 babies born at the Contra Costa Regional Medical Center in Martinez, where may other un-insured and under-insured women go, the same state office says.

Across the state and the country, childbirth is the number one reason for hospitalization, according to the California Health Care Foundation, a non-profit research and advocacy group.

Corburn is helping lead a regional health task force to assess the impact of the Alta Bates closure, which Sutter says is planned by 2030 as the building has been deemed seismically unfit.

“It’s a real concern for women across the region, because there are so many births there, and so many good quality outcomes compared to other birthing centers in the region, especially for women of color,” he says.

Alta Bates is the facility of choice for Richmond’s expectant mothers because they provide good care and it’s closer than Martinez’s Contra Costa Regional Medical Center, Reader says. For this reason, the prospect of it closing is frightening for people in Richmond.

Angelica, 31, who had a baby at Alta Bates four months ago and asked only to be identified by her first name for privacy reasons, says she fears for other women if the hospital were to close.

She was taken to Alta Bates after her doctor at Brighter Beginnings, where Reader works and where Angelica was receiving pre-natal care, identified she was showing signs of pre-eclampsia, or high blood pressure that can be dangerous to the mom and baby. Staff at Alta Bates tried to induce labor, and failing that, delivered her baby by C-section.

She was admitted for over a week due to high blood pressure. After discharge, she received in-home follow-up visits from an Alta Bates nurse.

“I can’t imagine what women would do if it closed,” Angelica said. The last thing a pregnant woman wants to stress about is where you’re going to deliver, she says: “It should be a no-brainer.”

Sutter’s Warren said in an email that, “Sutter plans to rebuild its exceptional Women and Infants program and neonatal intensive care unit.”

“Sutter is currently exploring rebuilding [the unit] at the Oakland campus,” he said.

But Warren said, “a final decision on when we rebuild and move our services to Oakland hasn’t been decided yet.”

He said Sutter was currently conducting a review of emergency services to ensure that residents of Berkeley, West Contra Costa County and UC Berkeley continue to have good access to emergency medical services.

In a hopeful sign, at least one other healthcare facility might open in Richmond to help fill the gap.

LifeLong Medical Center is building a large, new clinic on Harbour Way that will provide health care for children and adults. While this will include pre-natal care, it won’t have a specific maternity ward. The new clinic will open in 2019.

Nurse Kihhei, who works at Kaiser’s overwhelmed Richmond center, says even the new LifeLong Medical won’t be enough. “We need either an extended hospital or a hospital opened in a nearby community,” she said. “We just can’t keep up with the caseload.”


  1. Christopher Eaton

    It should be mentioned that Kaiser Permanente’s Richmond Medical Center has no delivery ward. They have OBs to administer prenatal treatment, and they have pediatricians and family medicine doctors for postnatal care, but they do not have the capacity to deliver. Even those with Kaiser coverage must make their way to either Walnut Creek or Oakland Kaiser hospitals to deliver their babies. There is a serious shortage of delivery rooms in the East Bay.

  2. Jean Ramjit

    Every hospital needs an Obstretics unit. As it stands, currently, expectant mothers have to go to OAK, Vallejo, or Walnut Creek for mother and baby care. There has been, on occasions, Mothers close to delivery, who showed at Kaiser Richmond and the babies were delivered in the ER.
    This demonstrates a big deficit and a much needed one for obstetrical care.

  3. Local Nurse

    I am a maternity nurse at Kaiser Oakland and a Berkeley resident and I can tell you that in my current facility, we don’t have the ability to absorb the patients that will come if Alta Bates closes it’s doors. We are already jammed to the ceiling with women to are delivering here in Oakland with pressures to discharge patients earlier and earlier to make way for mothers who need a bed. In the 1990s moms and their babies were discharged too soon and we heard the stories of mothers bleeding to death at home, having seizures and babies neurologically damaged due to jaundice that led to legislation that mandates the right to 48 hour and 92 hour hospital stays following vaginal and cesarean section deliveries. We do not want a return to those days. The solution is not to move newly delivered mothers and their infants through the hospital to home as fast as we can or to close local hospitals like Alta Bates and Doctor’s Hospital, it is to provide the needed hospital care that our community deserves in that local area. When I first moved to Berkeley, we had 2 hospitals, now we are faced with the possibility of not having even one. The women and babies of West Contra Costa County and Berkeley deserve to be able to deliver in their own community and not have to be transported screaming in pain down a crowed hwy 80 in bumper to bumper traffic. These hospital corporations provide care for the money, we need a change toward care based on community need.

  4. Alta Bates nurse

    Sutter plans to move the maternity department to its Summit campus in Oakland when state regulations on earthquake safety force the Alta Bates campus to close. Due to its proximity to the freeway, it’s actually a shorter drive from Richmond.

  5. A local ER Doctor

    Healthcare is expensive, insurance reimbursement continues to shrink, more hospitals continue to go bankrupt. So it is highly probable (and very regrettable) that Summit will close the Alta Bates Hospital and ER unless Berkeley passes a bond measure to subsidize a new hospital. Alta Bates loses money for Sutter every year (from treating the many uninsured and under-insured patients there); A new hospital would cost Sutter about $400 million. What company would or could pay for that?
    Pregnant people should be OK because Sutter will likely open a birthing center in Berkeley. That is cheaper to build and most pregnant women are insured, even non-Sutter, pregnant, walk-in patients.
    If the City of Berkeley is serious about wanting an ER and hospital, they need to help pay for it, not expect a national company to lose money to do it for them. I see two choices: One, Berkeley can offer a bond-measure to help pay for Sutter’s new Berkeley hospital. Or, two, Berkeley can create a local hospital district bond measure to pay for their own local district hospital.
    There are 78 health care districts in California created with special property taxes to help pay for hospitals, clinics and other health services in their area. Alameda Hospital, Marin General Hospital, Eden Hospital, Washington Hospital in Fremont, El Camino Hospital in Mountain View (where I was born) and Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo are all examples of local district hospitals.
    Doctors Medical Center was a district hospital for 50 years until it was transferred by the community in 1997 to a for-profit corporation, Tenet. Tenet closed it in 2015, saving Contra Costa County the many millions of dollars per month the County had been required to subsidize Tenet to run Doctors Medical Center. Kaiser Richmond, subsidized by national Kaiser moneys, jumped in to heroically pick up the slack for the Contra Costa County ever since. Kaiser Richmond rapidly expanded services and has been quietly absorbing that huge expense and patient burden ever since, without complaint or payments. (If Kaiser Richmond was a private hospital, it would have gone out of business the month after Doctors Medical Center closed.)
    If Berkeley wants a hospital to stay in Berkeley, then get busy and form a healthcare district: The hospital must be built by 2030, so break ground by 2025, so get the district formed by 2020. Berkeley needs to stop complaining that for-profit and non-profit companies won’t lose money to help our city. Be the solution and create a hospital district or help Sutter pay the $400 million for the new medical center. I’ll vote for it and pay it happily each year.

    • notconvincedgranny

      Tenet was a mess to begin with, and never should have been allowed to buy Brookside and absorb Doctors. I get that Sutter doesn’t want to retrofit the existing building, but saying the public needs to build them a new hospital is ridiculous.

  6. Julia

    I work at Kaiser Richmond, I live in San Pablo, my elderly mother lives in San Pablo…. I live and work in this community. My family and I receive our care here. My 83 year old mother broke her ankle in her home, and was NOT able to receive the emergency care she desperately needed at Richmond Kaiser, ten minutes away. Kaiser ED was overcrowded, on divert status. She instead was forced to go to Vallejo, 14 miles and at least 30 minutes (on a good day) away. All of her post-op follow up care therefore had to occur in Vallejo. Traveling was a great burden for her, and the rest of our family (all local to Richmond Kaiser) who pitched in caregiving duties. My husband’s sister, newly paraplegic and long-time San Pablo resident, was also diverted to Kaiser Oakland for urgent care due to overcrowding in Kaiser Richmond ED.

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