Berkeley community protests Alta Bates closure with strollers

Stephanie Li/Staff

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Community members gathered Sunday to protest the planned closure of Alta Bates Summit Medical Center services, which would leave the community without emergency services from Richmond to Downtown Oakland.

About 150 community members organized outside the facility, dressed in red and carrying signs that read, “Save Alta Bates Hospital.” Protesters pushed strollers as they marched, shouting slogans such as “Close Alta Bates? No way, save the birthplace of the East Bay.” The rally began at 11:30 a.m. and continued until after 1 p.m.

Sutter Health, which owns Alta Bates, decided in October 2015 to close the hospital’s services because of the fact that the building is seismically unfit, sparking widespread community backlash. Patients of Alta Bates will be transferred to a new, larger medical center in Oakland that will be sized to meet the needs of Alta Bates and Oakland’s Summit Hospital patients, according to a statement provided by Sutter Health.

The closure of Alta Bates would rid Berkeley of its only emergency room.

Eric Koch has been working at Alta Bates as a nurse for the past 26 years. He called the situation “dire,” not only for the local community, but also for UC Berkeley students. The hospital community is already understaffed and lacking resources, he said.

“Corporate people don’t think about the communities they serve,” Koch said. “They think about the money. We’re here to remind them it’s really about the people, not the money.”

One of the rally’s organizers was Rochelle Pardue-Okimoto, a nurse at Alta Bates for the past 17 years and a member of the Save the Alta Bates Sub-Committee at the California Nurses Association. Pardue-Okimoto said the association decided to hold a rally because efforts in the past, pressuring Sutter Health to keep hospitals open had been successful.

“When the community stands up and says that they want to keep their hospital open, we can do that together,” Pardue-Okimoto said.

According to Pardue-Okimoto, the decision to march with strollers was meant to symbolize the fact that Alta Bates births more babies than any other hospital in the area. Alta Bates delivers more than 6,000 babies each year, she said.

North Berkeley resident Ann Hasse said she has been using Alta Bates Hospital for more than 40 years and that both of her children were born there.

“(A) lot of us associate Alta Bates with the beginning of our families,” Hasse said. “It’s a very important emotional connection.”

Berkeley resident Chris Cosgrove said the closure of Alta Bates is enough to make her move out of the community. Cosgrove said her close family members have used the hospital’s emergency care services, and that if the hospital was closed, they would have died.

“Is that what we want?” Cosgrove said. “I don’t, and I don’t want to stay in a community that does that and I won’t support a corporation that does that either.”

As Sutter Health said in a statement, it anticipates no reduction in services across Berkeley and Oakland. Its plan, according to the statement, ensures the most technologically advanced health care, with more emergency capacity and better access to services for the community.

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín, who spoke at the rally, said he has been working with the California Nurses Association and the community to fight the closure of Alta Bates since he took office. Arreguín called the closure “a matter of life or death,” as the hospital houses the only emergency room for the entire city of Berkeley, as well as UC Berkeley.

According to Arreguín, a regional task force, made up of county officials, mayors, nurses and other stakeholders, has been created to discuss the closure’s impact on the community. The task force will also develop strategies in order to pressure Sutter Health to keep the hospital open.

“I think this rally shows Sutter that the community is organizing, that we’re angry over their decision and that we’re going to fight back,” Arreguin said. “We’re going to do everything we can to keep Alta Bates open.”

Contact Ella Colbert at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @colbert_ella.