by Nevin Long
The future of Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley remains unclear in the face of proposed changes to its services by its parent company, the not-for-profit medical organization Sutter Health.
Nurses, politicians and community members protested the closure of Alta Bates and cuts in staffing on hospital grounds on Saturday, Nov. 5. An official press release from Sutter has only muddied the waters.
State Assemblyman Tony Thurman gave a fiery speech to the crowd gathered in front of the hospital. “If you’re going to close,” Thurman said, “you lose your non-profit status.”
Many of Alta Bates’ programs, including the emergency room, operating room, and labor and delivery departments, are slated to be relocated to Summit Hospital in Oakland’s Pill Hill because upkeep at Alta Bates is cost prohibitive, according to Sutter. Critics with the California Nurses Association disagree.
“They say they don’t have the money to retrofit,” said Summit nurse Michael Hill.
But financials posted on Sutter’s own website tell a different story. The company raked in $554 million last year, an increase of almost 584 percent over 2015. Operating revenues also increased by $1 billion in 2016.
Emergency patients would be forced to either go to the relocated emergency room on Pill Hill, the Kaiser Permanente facility in Richmond or Contra Costa Regional Medical Center in Martinez, should Sutter choose to go through with the changes.
Thorild Urdal, a 30-year Alta Bates veteran nurse in the acute obstetrics department, said the solution is unworkable.
“Coming around the bend to get into Oakland is going to be more difficult,” Urdal said, “so it’s really going to leave a big void for West County in Contra Costa.”
However, hospital officials preferred not to say the hospital was closing. Clayton Warren, communications director for Sutter, saw the situation as “complicated.”
Warren said of the hospital, “It’s not closing.”
But Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin, who helped found a task force to keep Alta Bates open, disputed the statement as a “stroller brigade” circled in front of the building.
“They have announced, as early as 2015, that they intend to close not only the delivery but also the emergency services here,” Arreguin said. “Now if they’ve changed their position, that’s great news, but that’s not going to stop us from putting the pressure on them.”
The mayor also stated that the task force was looking into other solutions, including a publicly maintained emergency room, in order to keep a hospital in the city of Berkeley.
In their press release, Sutter officials again denied they intended to close the hospital but also hinted at upcoming changes to the facility and were not specific as to what those changes would be.
“We are examining ways to repurpose the campus for medical services and/or support office space that would carry less of an impact on the neighborhood,” the release stated.
The release did not specify whether repurposing the Alta Bates campus would affect retrofitting costs.
Sutter has come under fire for these kinds of cuts in services before. In 2010, the company attempted a similar closure of St. Luke’s Hospital in San Francisco. Sutter bowed to community pressure and allowed the hospital to remain intact in that case.
Jemila Pereira, an Alta Bates family care nurse who led many of the protest chants, said patient safety was her primary concern. She says short staffing in her department had become a major issue. She isn’t buying the notion that Sutter is short of money.
“The bottom line is greed,” Pereira said.
Many of the nurses on hand attributed Sutter’s move to the same motivation. Urdal was blunt, saying that she thought Sutter simply did not want poorer patients.
“It’s medical redlining,” Urdal said.
Nevin Long, a San Francisco State University journalism student, is an intern with the Bay View. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.