California Nurses Association holds town hall to address Berkeley hospital closure

Daniel Kim/Staff

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The California Nurses Association hosted a town hall Wednesday to discuss ways to prevent the planned closure of the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center’s Berkeley campus, which would eliminate the city’s only emergency room.

Sutter Health, a not-for-profit health organization, confirmed last year that it would close its Alta Bates Berkeley campus within 14 years and consolidate services at a new medical center located at its Summit Campus in Oakland.  The board of panelists at the town hall — which included California Nurses Association officials, state Assemblymember Tony Thurmond, D-Richmond, and Berkeley City Councilmember Jesse Arreguín, among others — alleged that the proposed consolidation is a step to maximize profits and is symptomatic of the not-for-profit’s larger “corporate model.”

Sutter Health spokesperson Jill Antonides previously stated that the organization determined that it would be more practical to move services to Oakland than to seismically retrofit the Alta Bates building in compliance with a state law requiring all hospitals to be earthquake safe by 2030.

The panelists called Sutter Health’s planned closure of the hospital an instance of medical “redlining,” a practice that involves directly or indirectly denying services to residents of certain areas based on race or ethnicity. Particularly since the April 2015 closure of Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo, the Alta Bates Berkeley campus hospital has become one of the primary hospitals serving residents of underprivileged communities in Contra Costa County, said Zenei Cortez, president of the California Nurses Association.

Hospitals can make greater profits, said National Nurses United spokesperson Martha Wallner, from treating high-income patients with “gold-plated” insurance plans than they can through treating low-income patients covered by Medi-Cal.

According to Carolyn Kemp, an Alta Bates Summit Medical Center spokesperson, the proposed consolidation is not a money-saving tactic, but rather a response to a decreased need among patients for hospital stays in light of medical advances.

“We cannot operate two full-service hospitals less than three miles apart if we want to remain a viable, affordable health care organization,” Kemp said in an email.

Community members at the town hall, however, highlighted the increased use of the Alta Bates Berkeley campus’s emergency room as evidence of the city’s need for the hospital. According to data from the California Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development, the total amount of visits to Emergency Department Services at the Alta Bates Berkeley campus increased from about 42,000 in 2010 to approximately 54,000 in 2015.

According to Kemp, the new facility in Oakland will include a larger emergency room equipped to handle the combined capacity of the hospitals. She added that the new facility will also allow all patients to have equal access to private rooms.

But community members questioned Sutter Health’s ability to provide an adequate level of care after the consolidation and expressed concerns about the distance community members would have to travel to reach an emergency room.

“We need to band together because this is not acceptable,” Cortez said. “Nobody should dictate who lives and who dies, and when hospitals close, our patients are at risk.”

Staff writer Roann Pao contributed to this article. 


Jessica Lynn is an assistant news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @jessicailynn.