Officials keep up fight for critical care at Alta Bates, while hospital says it will stay open for 10 years

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín speaks at a rally to fight the closure of Alta Bates in November 2017. He will present with others at a forum in Berkeley on Saturday. Photo: David Yee

Healthcare professionals and officials will speak at a public forum at the Ed Roberts Campus on Saturday, the latest event in an ongoing campaign against the removal of acute care services from Alta Bates Medical Center.

A state law requires seismic upgrades at hospitals by 2030, and Sutter Health plans to relocate the Alta Bates inpatient care and emergency services to an expanded Oakland site while keeping only outpatient care in Berkeley. A growing chorus of elected officials, union representatives and patients is calling on the healthcare giant to keep the full array of services at the Ashby Avenue hospital, often fondly called the “birthplace of the East Bay” because so many locals were born there.

On Wednesday, a few days before the weekend forum, Sutter Health released a statement aiming to dispel what it calls misinformation about the impending changes. While many are under the impression that Alta Bates could close as early as next year, the complete set of services at the hospital will remain intact until they are fully available elsewhere, Sutter says. It will likely take about 10 years to rebuild the emergency room, maternity and delivery services and more next to the Summit campus at by Hawthorne Avenue and Webster Street in Oakland.

“We really felt it was necessary to ensure the community of Berkeley that we’ll continue to provide services there for the next decade,” Alta Bates Summit CEO Chuck Prosper told Berkeleyside.

After that, the remaining outpatient services, including cancer care and urgent care, will either be kept at Alta Bates or moved to the Herrick campus on Dwight Way, he said. The new emergency department in Oakland will have the combined capacity of the current services in Berkeley and Oakland. Prosper said the company plans to move all the Berkeley employees to Oakland.

Several members of the Berkeley City Council sent out statements from the “Save Alta Bates Hospital” campaign, a collaborative primarily organized by the California Nurses Association, saying the hospital could close as early as 2019 and encouraging constituents to attend the forum. Sutter said that date is erroneous, but in the past the company has said the services could be moved anytime before 2030.

The removal of acute care from Alta Bates will leave a large chunk of the East Bay, between Rodeo and Oakland, without emergency services, as Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo shuttered in 2015. Critics of Sutter’s plans say patients in critical condition would have to be transported for miles on the clogged I-80, which could make the difference in a life-or-death situation.

“People’s lives are at risk, and for what reason? To make a few extra bucks?” said Mayor Jesse Arreguín, at a rally in November outside the hospital.

Prosper said he “would welcome” partnering with emergency service providers to conduct time and transit studies examining the difference the move would make for ambulance transport, though there are no concrete plans to do that research yet. He said ambulances that currently travel on I-80 to Alta Bates already have to bring patients up Ashby after getting off the freeway, which adds a fair amount of time itself.

Berkeley officials, along with many other local and regional leaders, are united in opposition to Sutter’s plans. Under former Mayor Tom Bates, the City Council passed a resolution unanimously opposing the removal of services. Last year, Arreguín established a task force to fight the closure of Alta Bates.

Berkeley Councilwoman Sophie Hahn said the effort is urgent, even if the emergency and delivery services are set to stay in Berkeley for another decade. If Sutter instead decided to retrofit Alta Bates to keep the services there — the alternative the campaign is pushing for — the company would need to begin those plans soon in order to meet the state deadline.

“For them to stay open beyond 2030, they would need to be bringing forward their plans for approval now,” Hahn said.

Prosper said most of the Alta Bates building “isn’t suitable for retrofitting,” which opponents dispute, given Sutter’s wealth and access to funds for capital improvements.

“The building is built out to the property line. There’s simply no room for construction or staging,” he said. “We’re working very hard to educate the elected officials and other key stakeholders about how complex it is to operate a hospital.”

Several of those officials and stakeholders will speak at Saturday’s forum. The event, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Ed Roberts campus at 3075 Adeline St., will include presentations by Arreguín, State Senator Nancy Skinner, Alta Bates nurse and El Cerrito City Councilwoman Rochelle Pardue-Okimoto, and other healthcare professionals and officials.

Correction: This article previously identified Rochelle Pardue-Okimoto as the mayor of El Cerrito. She’s mayor pro-tem.