Closure of Alta Bates Hospital endangers community health

Franchesca Spektor/Staff

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Sutter Health plans to shut down Berkeley’s only acute-care hospital, Alta Bates Medical Center, one mile from the UC Berkeley campus and the beloved birthplace of thousands of area residents, including many in the UC Berkeley community.

If you are a UC Berkeley student, your health and wellbeing are at risk if Alta Bates’ emergency, acute and urgent care services, which students need and use regularly, are eliminated. That’s why the campus’s student government unanimously passed a resolution opposing the closure, noting that UC Berkeley’s more than 37,000 students depend heavily on the hospital and turn to it to address life-threatening illnesses and injuries.

As the only non-Kaiser hospital serving the I-80 corridor between Vallejo and Oakland, Alta Bates is the primary hospital for many others in the region and plays an especially vital role providing services to women and infants. Last year, Alta Bates had 5863 births and 45,336 ER patient visits, and 68.3 percent of the patients were female.  

An Alta Bates closure would have a harmful cascade effect on hospitals and emergency services: exacerbating already overcrowded ERs, lengthening wait times for hospital beds and procedures and tying up first responders and emergency service vehicles with longer transport times through the East Bay’s congested roadways.

As a member of the El Cerrito City Council and a registered nurse at Alta Bates’ neonatal intensive care unit, I am working with my colleagues, community leaders, patients and concerned residents, to stop Sutter from closing Alta Bates.  

Sutter proposes to close Alta Bates and “consolidate” services at the Summit campus in Oakland. With this maneuver, Sutter would avoid the state law requiring they seismically upgrade Alta Bates to insure that when “The Big One” happens, the facility remains in operation to serve the community.

Despite its nonprofit status, Sutter reported almost $12 billion in revenue last year and an operating income of $370 million. With $14.3 billion in assets as of December 2015, Sutter can well afford to seismically upgrade Alta Bates. Last year, the California Health Facilities Financing Authority approved issuance of bonds to Sutter Health up to $1.2 billion for capital improvement projects.

Sutter argues that its consolidation plan will improve services. This is what they said in 1999 when pushing the merger of Alta Bates Hospital and Summit Medical Center. Since that merger, Alta Bates has lost many services including the inpatient oncology unit, pulmonary sub-acute unit and cardiac catheterization lab. In 2008, a Federal Trade Commission study showed that Summit’s price increases were the largest of any comparable hospital in California and cited the Alta Bates merger as one of the causes.

Demand for inpatient hospital services is steadily rising in the region, despite Sutter’s claims to the contrary. The tragic 2015 closure of Doctors Medical Center, the safety-net hospital that served many low-income residents in West Contra Costa County, put further strain on the region’s acute care health resources.

Sutter’s plan puts everyone at risk and we know that the poor, the uninsured and underinsured will be harmed the most. We cannot stand by and allow more medical redlining.

The campaign to Save Alta Bates was kicked off last year when my union, the California Nurses Association, joined together with concerned elected officials and community members and held a well-attended town hall meeting in Berkeley.

Cities up and down the East Bay’s I-80 corridor have also passed resolutions opposing the Alta Bates’ closure, including Oakland, Emeryville, Berkeley, Albany, El Cerrito, Richmond and San Pablo.

This March, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín convened the Alta Bates Regional Task Force, made up of East Bay city and county governments, the Berkeley Fire Department, UC Berkeley, community organizations and unions, including the California Nurses Association and SEIU Local 1021. The task force is building a broad-based coalition and plans to hold town hall meetings in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties to raise public awareness and engage people in the campaign to save the hospital.

The campaign’s spirit was palpable at the “stroller brigade” and rally held outside Alta Bates Hospital earlier this month. Several hundred people gathered and marched, many wearing “I was Born at Alta Bates” stickers, including my two sons and my husband.

Momentum is building and we know that we can win. We’ve won before. The campaign to save Sutter-owned St. Luke’s Hospital in San Francisco’s Mission District was successful when nurses and community members organized together. St. Luke’s is still open, and this coming year, a brand-new seismically sound St. Luke’s Hospital will open in the same block.

The recent fires in the North Bay, which devastated entire neighborhoods, and resulted in the shutdown of two hospitals in Santa Rosa, were a wake-up call to the East Bay. We’ve already experienced earthquakes severe enough to collapse a freeway; explosions, fires and vapors released at the Chevron oil refinery; and a wildfire in the hills of both Berkeley and Oakland in 1991 that killed 25 and injured 150.

We need to improve and expand our capacity for acute care services in this region, not shrink them. Please join with us to Save Alta Bates.

Start by calling Alta Bates Summit Medical Center CEO Chuck Prosper. Text the term SAVEAB to 69866 to receive a short script and then be connected. Visit us at National Nurses United to learn about the Campaign to Save Alta Bates.

Rochelle Pardue-Okimoto is a registered nurse and El Cerrito City Council member.