Alta Bates planned closure puts Berkeley residents at risk

CITY AFFAIRS: Community members have mobilized recently to fight Sutter Health's closure of Berkeley's only hospital.

Kelly Baird/Staff

By 2030, Berkeley’s only hospital will disappear: Patients will be forced to travel an extra 12 minutes by ambulance — potentially through Bay Area rush hour traffic — for emergency care in Oakland.

Sutter Health’s decision to close Alta Bates Summit Medical Center’s Ashby Avenue campus and move emergency services to its Oakland location is absurdly self-serving. As Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín puts it, the situation is “a matter of life or death.”

Berkeley resident Chris Cosgrove told The Daily Californian her close family members would have died if Alta Bates’ emergency care services were not at the current Berkeley location.

A state law passed in 1994 requires all hospitals to be retrofitted to withstand major earthquakes. Rather than spend money to renovate the Berkeley location, Sutter Health is shuttering crucial services to cut costs at the expense of Berkeley residents’ physical well-being even though its assets have grown steadily from $12 billion in 2011 to $14 billion in 2015.

Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington told the San Francisco Chronicle that retrofitting “is expensive, but the city’s doing it, the university’s doing it, the landlords are doing it. And Sutter says, ‘Oh we’re just going to close down.’ ” And now, as Worthington added, we may all have to pay the price.

Alameda County’s emergency ambulance services are already “very understaffed,” said Dave Brannigan, deputy chief of the Berkeley Fire Department, to the East Bay Express. Extending the emergency response time will put critical-condition patients at greater risk and limit how quickly ambulances can respond to other calls for help.

Sutter Health’s decision left key stakeholders like city officials and nurses out of the loop. Even though Sutter Health isn’t a public entity, it’s a nonprofit and essentially operates as a public service. Yet, its executives seem wholly uninterested in the community they’re supposed to serve. They should have at least conferred with community stakeholders before unilaterally making such a detrimental decision.

Community members have made their thoughts on this matter clear. On Nov. 5, 150 marched around Alta Bates, strollers in tow. Nurses, residents and city officials have formed a task force to pressure Sutter Health into keeping the hospital open. State Sen. Nancy Skinner introduced a bill that would institute more protections against the closure of nonprofit hospitals (but Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it in October).

Should Sutter shutter, it wouldn’t be the first time Berkeley goes without a hospital. And last time, there were deadly consequences. In 1904, a UC Berkeley professor was hurrying to catch a train downtown when he fell under the wheels and was crushed, according to an East Bay Times op-ed. His death led to calls for the establishment of a local hospital — because, as the op-ed puts it, “If you were seriously injured in Berkeley, comprehensive emergency medical facilities were not nearby.” The next year, a Berkeley location of Alta Bates was founded.

Sutter Health’s closure of Alta Bates walks back on a century’s worth promise of accessible and prompt emergency care for the thousands of Berkeley residents it serves.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the Editorial Board as written by the opinion editor.

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