Closing Alta Bates threatens emergency care in Berkeley

Illustration of closed Alta Bates
Rhea Dias/Staff

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During a long night of studying, my friends and I went out for a late-night snack, as students often do. Craving dim sum, we ordered an assortment of dumplings, including some without shrimp because my friend Desirée is allergic to shellfish. When we got back, we separated the dumplings, giving her the vegetable ones. But after she took a bite, I noticed that the dumpling she ate had shrimp! Immediately, her throat got itchy. We knew we had to get to the emergency room, and that Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley was the closest.

It took us about nine minutes to drive to the hospital. By the time we got there, Desirée was having trouble breathing but was still able to get oxygen into her lungs. We were scared. If Alta Bates hadn’t been so close to the UC Berkeley campus, I don’t know what we would have done. She would have really been in trouble. As UC Berkeley students, we know to go to the Tang Center during the day for health services, and after hours to go to Alta Bates.

As many as 4,000 UC Berkeley students visit Alta Bates’ emergency department, or ED, every academic year. It’s especially comforting to know that we can also receive intensive care services or other acute care services at Alta Bates, which is owned by the hospital chain Sutter Health. Alta Bates is the only acute care hospital in Berkeley and one of the only non-Kaiser hospitals serving the East Bay I-80 corridor from Berkeley to San Pablo.

Closing Alta Bates would jeopardize the health and safety of our communities that depend on our local hospital staying open. People would be forced to travel to Sutter’s Summit campus in Oakland. Moreover, according to the Rapid Health Impact Assessment, or RHIA, on closing Alta Bates, “a high percentage of the mental health and suicide/self-harm visits to Alta Bates campus are from UC Berkeley students.”

As a nonprofit organization, Sutter Health has an obligation to serve the community. When Summit Medical Center merged with Alta Bates in 1999, Sutter Health made a commitment to serve the community. But Sutter seemingly broke its promise when, rather than retrofit the hospital, it announced that it will close Alta Bates by 2030. The city of Berkeley has asked Sutter repeatedly for information on the cost of the retrofit, but Sutter has reportedly not provided answers to the city or to any public agency.

That’s why we are very troubled about the findings of a December 2018 report on the impact of closing Alta Bates, conducted by the UC Berkeley Institute of Urban and Regional Development. The report examined travel times from five East Bay cities during peak traffic and found that it took longer to get to the Summit campus in Oakland than to Alta Bates at 5:30 p.m. For El Sobrante and some Berkeley locations, travel times at that hour increased by as much as 20 minutes.

Now there’s talk of having a stand-alone ED in Richmond. California policy, however, does not normally permit stand-alone EDs. To ensure patient safety, EDs must be attached to an acute care hospital where patients can get inpatient care if they need surgery, admission to the intensive care unit or other treatment. Nurses know that transferring ED patients to another facility rather than directly admitting them could lead to delays in care and potentially result in medical complications, irreversible deterioration of the patient’s condition or death during transport. This is why California law states that an acute care hospital that has 24-hour inpatient care must have an emergency department.

Communities need a full-service, acute care hospital. Don’t be fooled by Sutter’s claim that urgent care can replace Alta Bates. Urgent care not connected to an acute care hospital is not the solution. Urgent care centers do not perform surgeries and they can’t treat heart attacks, strokes, severe bleeding, unconsciousness, poisoning, severe abdominal pain, convulsions, seizures, pregnancy, life-threatening allergic reactions or premature babies. They are not open 24 hours a day.

Alta Bates is known as the birthplace of the East Bay, delivering more than 6,000 babies every year. The hospital has a neonatal intensive care unit for premature babies. As a neonatal intensive care nurse, I know that for mothers giving birth to a premature baby, every second counts when getting to the hospital. Closing Alta Bates would take away obstetric services from pregnant women living between Vallejo and Oakland.

RHIA noted that closing Alta Bates will have “potentially significant adverse health impacts” for birthing and obstetrics; care for vulnerable people, such as people of color, elderly, uninsured and homeless people; “disaster response capacity” and UC Berkeley student health care. In 2016, 63% of Alta Bates’ inpatient discharges and 56% of ED discharges were for people of color, according to the report. That same year, 68% of Alta Bates ED patients paid via either Medicare, Medi-Cal, out-of-pocket or were uninsured. Having a full-service hospital in Berkeley increases access to health care for everyone.

We, as a UC Berkeley student and a registered nurse at Alta Bates, are deeply concerned about what will happen if Sutter closes Alta Bates. It’s clear that we must save Alta Bates as a full-service, acute care hospital. But to succeed, East Bay residents and students need to organize by coming to the Contra Costa community forum and taking a stand to Save Alta Bates on Saturday, Nov. 16 at 10 a.m. at El Cerrito Community Center. RSVP to [email protected]

Derek Imai is a public health student at UC Berkeley and an ASUC senator-elect. Rochelle Pardue-Okimoto is a registered nurse and the mayor of El Cerrito.