Officials, providers pledge ‘no stone unturned’ in fight to save Berkeley hospital

Asked if anyone was born at Alta Bates Medical Center or had kids there, most of the audience members at Saturday’s “Save Alta Bates” forum respond affirmatively. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Hands flew up in the air Saturday morning when the audience at a “Save Alta Bates” forum was asked who had been born, and who had given birth, at the Ashby Avenue hospital.

About 200 people were packed into the Ed Roberts Campus auditorium to listen to elected officials, healthcare providers and emergency responders give impassioned pledges to keep fighting to maintain acute care at Alta Bates. Sutter Health, which owns the hospital and many others throughout Northern California, plans to relocate emergency and delivery services to Oakland’s Summit campus by 2030, the state’s deadline for full-service hospitals to make seismic upgrades. Sutter’s critics say the move would create a massive “hospital desert” in a region where services have already grown scarcer, leaving the I-80 corridor from Rodeo to Oakland with Richmond’s small Kaiser facility as the only option.

Last week, Sutter released a statement aiming to reassure the community that Alta Bates would remain a full-service hospital for another decade. CEO Chuck Prosper of Alta Bates Summit Medical Center — which includes the Berkeley and Oakland campuses, and Berkeley’s Herrick campus — told Berkeleyside that the hospital would keep all Berkeley’s emergency and delivery services in place until they were fully up and running in Oakland. He said that process is highly unlikely to take fewer than 10 years.

Speakers at the energetic Saturday forum said Sutter’s commitment did not reassure them. Some said a crisis was simply being postponed, and others doubted the company’s words.

“We demand that Sutter give us a plan that commits to providing acute and emergency care to the people in the East Bay,” said Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín. “Anything else is smoke and mirrors.”

Arreguín established a task force last year to explore options for protecting Alta Bates. He said Saturday they would leave “no stone unturned” in the process. The group is looking at possible legal action, and some members are pushing for broader policy and zoning considerations. Berkeley Health Commissioner Andy Katz, an EBMUD director who is running for the Assembly seat in District 15, and others are partnering with UC Berkeley’s public health school to conduct a Health Impact Analysis, measuring the likely effects of Sutter’s plans on community health.

Alta Bates nurse and El Cerrito Councilwoman Rochelle Pardue-Okimoto speaks, along with other officials and healthcare providers, at a Feb. 3 forum against the proposed removal of services from Alta Bates. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Arreguín said Saturday that efforts to understand the exact cost of, and necessary work involved in bringing Alta Bates up to seismic code instead of moving the services have so far been unsuccessful. The healthcare company has not produced answers to those questions, he said.

Sutter has said renovating the Berkeley site would be tough given how close the building is to the property line, and how disruptive construction noise and vibration would be to patient care. Sutter has also said the retrofit would be costly, and that operating two hospitals so close together is inefficient.

“Building a new hospital in Oakland is the most rational,” Prosper said last week.

Many people who spoke at the forum challenged claims that rebuilding at the Berkeley site would be too expensive, saying they believed Sutter’s pockets were deep enough to build whatever might be needed. Sutter ended 2016 with $15.7 billion in assets, including its properties, according an audit of the network. In 2015, the former head of Sutter’s $7.5 million salary made him the highest-earning non-profit CEO in the Sacramento area. Arreguín said at the forum he believes Sutter’s tax-exempt, non-profit status should be re-examined, to determine whether the company is providing the level of “community benefit” required to receive that status.

“What we see is a pattern of putting the hospital executives’ pay and other, what we might consider profit motives ahead of patient care and community needs,” said State Senator Nancy Skinner at the forum. Last year Skinner wrote a bill that would have required the attorney general to approve hospital closures in the state, but Governor Jerry Brown vetoed it after it made it through the legislature. Skinner said Saturday she planned to wait until next legislative session to revisit the idea, in hopes that the next governor will be friendlier to it.

Rochelle Pardue-Okimoto, an Alta Bates nurse and El Cerrito councilwoman who is also running for the Assembly District 15 seat, emceed the forum and said it feels like Sutter began carrying out its plan years ago when it moved several departments to the Summit campus and cut staff. She said there were already fears that Sutter would shut down either the Alta Bates or Summit hospitals when they merged the two in 1999, a deal that was unsuccessfully challenged with a lawsuit over anti-trust concerns.

Prosper said all current Alta Bates jobs will be relocated along with the services to the expanded Summit site. (The California Nurses Association is leading the campaign to “save Alta Bates.”) Outpatient care is slated to remain in Berkeley, either at Alta Bates or Herrick.

A nurses union member and others in the forum audience fill out postcards to Sutter. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

A central criticism of the impending move is that ambulances coming from the north will get stuck on I-80 for an even longer amount of time if they have to travel to Oakland, threatening the lives of patients in critical condition. Because Doctor’s Medical Center of San Pablo closed in 2015, many patients in West Contra Costa County are brought to Alta Bates.

Sutter has said the three-mile difference between Alta Bates and Summit would not make the critical difference people claim it would. Prosper said last week that assumptions about added traffic time are speculation until a study is conducted, noting that ambulances on I-80 already have to travel two miles up Ashby to get to Alta Bates.

Berkeley Fire Chief Dave Brannigan spoke at the Saturday forum, explaining the big difference the move would make for emergency responders. Paramedics, who begin providing care on board an ambulance, can only transfer patients to emergency rooms, not urgent care or other clinics, he said, and California law requires emergency rooms to be connected to full hospitals. While the Fire Department has already adapted to the relocation of cardiac care and other services to Summit — and brings critical trauma patients to Highland — responders still bring thousands of patients to Alta Bates each year.

“Let’s say we have a victim in a fire and their airway’s compromised. We’re not going to go to a burn center,” Brannigan said. “We’re going to take them to Alta Bates right now.” Plus, he said, the hospital used to have its own burn center. Pregnant patients in labor are also hurried to Alta Bates — “We need to get those moms and babies taken care of,” Brannigan said.

Berkeley, unlike other cities in Alameda County, has its own paramedics, and the nine first-responder units including four ambulances involved are all part of an intricate, time-sensitive emergency response system, Brannigan said. The closure of Alta Bates’s emergency room would require an overhaul of Berkeley’s system. It would take years to add ambulances, restructure the dispatch system and make other necessary changes, the fire chief said.

He and others questioned where victims would be taken if an earthquake or another major natural disaster occurred and prevented travel across city lines. Brannigan said the city’s emergency services providers are beginning to plan for all possible decisions by Sutter.

As the forum came to a close after about two hours, community members filled out postcards to Sutter opposing the move and chowed down on pizza slices.