To save lives, Alta Bates must be saved

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Where would you go if you had a medical emergency? For an estimated 4,000 students a year, the answer is the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center. While the Tang Center provides important medical services, it is no replacement for a hospital. To compensate, the Tang Center has a strong partnership with Alta Bates, providing an estimated 1,500 emergency department referrals a year to the hospital, which ensures that students have access to the health care they need. All of this is in jeopardy: Sutter Health has announced its intention to close Alta Bates by 2030.

The Alta Bates Summit Medical Center is known as the “birthplace of the East Bay.” It was home to more than 5,000 births in 2017, consistently delivering more babies than any other hospital in the East Bay. But Alta Bates is much more than a maternity hospital. The 347-bed hospital had more than 66,000 patients in 2016, including almost 46,000 emergency room visits, making it one of the largest and most visited hospitals in the region. It also provides essential medical services to those who are experiencing financial hardships, with 18% of the residents in its service area living below the federal poverty level.

In addition to the day-to-day services, Alta Bates will likely play a crucial role in the event of a disaster. We know that the Hayward Fault is capable of producing a magnitude 7.0 earthquake at any moment, which according to the HayWired earthquake scenario conducted by the U. S. Geological Survey in 2018, would result in about 16,000 people across the Bay Area needing medical attention. About 11,000 of those injuries would be in Alameda County and if the injuries were distributed evenly across all the emergency rooms in the county, each hospital would see 837 patients. Closure of Alta Bates would place significant, perhaps crippling, burdens on the surrounding hospitals’ abilities to respond to major disasters.

We already know how hospital closures have major repercussions for the rest of the region. Not that long ago, Alta Bates received an influx of patients after a local hospital closed. In April 2015, Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo closed, creating a gap in services across West Contra Costa County. As a result, between 2013 and 2016, Alta Bates saw a 39% increase in patients from West Contra Costa County.

Residents from this area, which is home to a large population of people of color, especially Black people, now have to travel further to reach a hospital, specifically Alta Bates. Closing Alta Bates would have a significant impact on the ability of these residents to get health care, many of whom are already more susceptible to medical complications due to preexisting medical conditions or lack of health insurance. Without Alta Bates, these already displaced patients may struggle to find close, quality care.

While Sutter Health claims that services at Alta Bates can be relocated to Summit Campus in Oakland, the reality is that Summit does not currently have the capacity to absorb Alta Bates’ patients. Traveling to the Summit Campus will take, on average, an additional 10-12 minutes. The additional distance will take Berkeley ambulances out of service for up to 2 hours a day. Additionally, when someone experiences a heart attack or stroke, minutes can make the difference between life and death. This could be too long for some.

Summit Campus also does not operate a birthing center and would need to construct one in order to fill Alta Bates’ role as the “birthplace of the East Bay.”

The potential closure of Alta Bates should be treated as a regional crisis. That is why I launched the Alta Bates Task Force to bring together regional leaders and health care experts to analyze the impacts of closure and to work to stop it. We have partnered with the UC Berkeley Institute of Urban and Regional Development to develop a Rapid Health Impact Assessment to document the impacts. Today, we are working to share that report to ensure that residents across the region are aware of the potential closure. Through raising public awareness, we hope to promote health care advocacy. Of course, we continue to be willing to work with Sutter Health to keep the hospital open. In December 2018, the Berkeley City Council approved a letter to Sutter requesting formal discussions with the city of Berkeley, as well to create a timeline and determine needs to retain Alta Bates Summit Medical Center as a full service acute and emergency care hospital. We are still waiting for a response. Since its founding in 1905, Alta Bates has had an essential role in the health care of our residents. Losing it would not only impact Berkeley residents but also an estimated 840,000 residents in its service area. When lives are on the line, there is no excuse to close the hospital.

Jesse Arreguín is the mayor of Berkeley.