Nurses campaign to save Berkeley’s Alta Bates hospital in front of Old City Hall on July 12, 2016. Photo: Andy Katz
Nurses campaign to save Berkeley’s Alta Bates hospital in front of Old City Hall on July 12, 2016. Photo: Andy Katz

State Senator Nancy Skinner has introduced a bill that aims to limit the closure of full-service hospitals in the East Bay. The move was prompted by the closure in 2015 of Doctors Medical hospital in San Pablo, and the proposed closure of Alta Bates hospital in Berkeley.

At a press conference Monday, Senator Skinner was joined by Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín, along with Assembly Member Tony Thurmond, Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan, medical practitioners, first-responders and patients, to explain the thinking behind the legislation, SB 687 (Skinner).

With the closure of Doctors Medical, residents in West Contra Costa are reliant on 50-bed hospital Richmond Kaiser and Alta Bates with its 300 beds, Skinner said. Sutter Health has said it needs to close Alta Bates before 2030 because of state seismic laws. (It proposes moving inpatient services to Oakland, leaving Berkeley services focused on outpatient care.) Such a closure, Skinner said, would leave all residents in the I-80 corridor that stretches from Rodeo in the north to Berkeley in the south dependent on Oakland hospitals for emergency care — facing the prospect of ambulances having to navigate I-80, including during rush hour, to get patients to the ER.

Local officials have minimal power to halt hospital closures. Currently, the law only requires that a hospital planning to close its emergency department provide 90 days’ notice to the state. SB 687 would require non-profit hospitals in California to obtain approval from the state Attorney General before closing emergency departments, and to hold at least one public hearing about the planned closure. If passed, the bill would require the Attorney General consider the impacts a closure would have on the availability and accessibility of healthcare services.

“When hospitals and emergency rooms close, patients pay the price with longer wait times and decreased health outcomes,” said Senator Skinner, stressing the need to prevent “hospital deserts.” “My legislation will create a layer of protection for the health of our communities.”

Thurmond said that after the closure of Doctors Medical, the number of visits to Kaiser Richmond tripled. “It has been proved that mortality rates go up with closures,” he said.

Studies evaluating the impacts of hospital closures show that loss of hospital emergency departments increases the risk of death by 15% for patients in the affected area who have a stroke or heart attack.

This point was brought home Monday by former Doctors Medical physician Dr. Desmond Carson who said he had seen patients die because of the closure of the hospital’s ER. “Time is life,” he said. “Every minute after a stroke, 4 million braincells die.”

Speaking of Sutter’s wish to close Alta Bates, Thurmond said: “Sutter can relocate within the I-80 corridor – they can reinvest and double down in our community.”

Mayor Arreguín has made saving Alta Bates hospital one of the central planks of his administration, along with addressing Berkeley’s homelessness crisis.

The biggest challenge, he said, is city government having no say in decisions made by hospital owners, “despite the fact they are nonprofits and we give them enormous tax breaks.”

Speaking to Berkeleyside, Arreguín said if one of the issues with Alta Bates was money, then he would want to talk with Sutter Health. The mayor said he also sees potential for expansion at Alta Bates Summit Medical’s Herrick Hospital site on Dwight Way.

Arreguín is submitting an item on March 14 to City Council which would enhance regulations around hospital closures. If approved, it would require “appropriate notice” of proposed closures of a hospital, clinic or out-patient facility that serves Berkeley, as well as public hearings before any closure.

Arreguín said he is also organizing an Alta Bates Regional Taskforce meeting slated for March 16 which would include representatives from UC Berkeley whose faculty and students depend on Alta Bates.

The press conference at which Senator Skinner announced the bill, was broadcast live on Facebook.

Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...