Alta Bates Hospital on Ashby Avenue, where 133 people will soon lose their jobs
Alta Bates at 2450 Ashby Ave.: the hospital needs to meet seismic standards by 2030 and and is considering its options on whether to close, or retrofit/rebuild.. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

For months, neighbors of Alta Bates Hospital in South Berkeley’s Elmwood District have been hearing rumors that the hospital, owned by Sutter Health, plans to close. The buzz was getting so loud, said Lucy Smallsreed, president of the Bateman Neighborhood Association, that she asked the hospital to respond.

Smallsreed said Stacey Wells, Sutter vice president of communications and public affairs, told her Alta Bates would close by Jan. 1, 2030. This is the date California hospitals must meet seismic standards to withstand a severe earthquake, set out in Senate Bill 1953.

Wells, Smallsreed said, told her Sutter had decided not to retrofit Alta Bates, and instead would close the hospital, which is losing money. Smallsreed wrote about the issue in the Berkeley Daily Planet.

But in an email to Berkeleyside, Wells said, “no long-term decision has been made.” She said there were inaccuracies in the Daily Planet story.

Wells sent this statement:

“We’re continuing to focus on how to provide exceptional care given the changing landscape of more affordable health care. It’s a matter of public record both that the Alta Bates campus is not seismically compliant past 2030 and that we have not yet filed plans to retrofit the campus. The neighborhood has also consistently opposed our construction projects and this makes it virtually impossible to construct a new campus at the existing hospital site. Beyond that, no long-term decisions have been made. We’ve made a handful of well-publicized program changes and will continue to do our due diligence. We will keep our staff, patients and community informed once we have something more concrete to share.”

These program changes, Wells said, include closing the cardiac catheterization lab at Alta Bates in 2011, and consolidating cardiac care at Summit Hospital in Oakland.

What’s most important to the neighborhood association, Smallsreed said, is to be kept in the loop, with as much advance notice as possible of Alta Bates changes, such as a hospital closure or sale. Living in the midst of hearsay isn’t easy, she said, and many neighbors don’t trust the hospital with keeping them informed.

“The rumors have been going on for some time,” she said. “We’d like transparency, and we’d like to have a voice in what’s going to happen, and we’d like to have a voice early in the process. We wouldn’t want to be invited to a hearing after they’ve made all the decisions.”

In this quiet South Berkeley residential neighborhood straddling bustling Telegraph and College avenues, neighbors are concerned about any land use impact that would increase traffic, parking problems, noise and crime, Smallsreed said.

Indeed, Alta Bates neighbors have had a strong, well-organized voice in hospital construction projects through the years, working closely with the city permitting process to ensure that their concerns are mitigated or addressed through conditions of approval, or work requirements (such as this 2002 city use permit). In 1983, several neighborhood groups hammered out an agreement with Alta Bates, prior to major construction.

When asked how Sutter plans to keep the community informed of current developments, Wells wrote: “Since no decision has been made I’m not sure what you mean by ‘keeping the community informed.’ If we had a decision, we’d let you know.”

She elaborated on the general situation:

“Health care is changing and as an organization, our goal is to anticipate and keep up with these changes. As a result of medical advances, fewer patients need inpatient (hospital) care. Over the years we have seen a dramatic drop in inpatient census and experienced financial challenges operating the medical center. We must reposition the medical center for success in the new health care world if Alta Bates Summit is to succeed and survive. We need to refocus on our core mission so that we can continue providing excellent inpatient care to the sickest patients who rely on us for life-saving medical treatment.”

Based in Sacramento, the not-for-profit Sutter Health operates dozens of hospitals, clinics and medical offices in Northern California, including Alta Bates and Herrick in Berkeley, and Sutter in Oakland. These three sites operate as one medical campus, Alta Bates Summit Medical Center, a merger that occurred in 2000.

Wells noted that the Alta Bates discussions don’t apply to Berkeley’s Herrick site, home to behavioral health, cancer services and a “soon-to-be opened urgent care clinic.

Sutter Health to open new clinic at Alta Bates Summit Herrick campus (03.03.15)
Alta Bates Summit to lay off 358 in Berkeley/Oakland (01.09.14)

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Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from 10 years as a daily news reporter for the East Bay Times,...