In summary

A not-for-profit hospital in Berkeley is scheduled to be closed because it would not be cost effective to retrofit the facility to meet required seismic standards.

By Sophie Hahn, Special to CalMatters

Sophie Hahn is the vice mayor of Berkeley, shahn@cityofberkeley.info. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

In the battle to stop the spread of COVID-19, California’s local hospitals are on the front lines. As the number of cases surged last month, public health officials became increasingly concerned that hospitals could be overwhelmed. 

At the same time, another health crisis looms; hospital closures threaten access to care for patients across the state, including many of our most vulnerable neighbors. 

Both crises are now hitting Berkeley, the city where I serve as vice mayor. Our number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is inching up. Meanwhile, Berkeley’s only acute care hospital, Alta Bates Medical Summit – the largest private, not-for-profit medical center in the East Bay – is slated to be closed by the end of the decade.

For more than a century, Alta Bates has provided essential health care for residents of dozens of cities and towns. Each year, the hospital sees about 60,000 patients, including 50,000 emergency room visits.

Known fondly as the “birthplace of the East Bay,” Alta Bates is also a vital maternity center for the region, with more than 6,000 babies delivered each year. It’s the place where two of my children were born, and where many of my neighbors have delivered theirs. The quality of care my family has received at Alta Bates, for generations, has been outstanding.  

In 2015, Sutter Health announced that it would close Alta Bates by 2030. Sutter, which invested $662 million in new facilities and technology across Northern California in 2019, claimed it would not be cost effective to retrofit the facility to meet required seismic standards. 

According to a 2018 report by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Urban and Regional Development, closing Alta Bates could have “significant impacts on the well-being of the region, particularly in the areas of birthing, emergency department access and disaster response.”

Potential health impacts would be most acutely felt by the elderly, the uninsured, individuals experiencing homelessness and communities of color throughout the East Bay. The closure would also impact UC Berkeley’s more than 40,000 students who rely on a full-service hospital in Berkeley.

In the event of any major disaster, Alta Bates plays a vital role. We are seeing that right now with COVID-19. Berkeley straddles the Hayward Fault and is vulnerable to catastrophic earthquakes and fires. Closure of Alta Bates would significantly reduce our capacity to respond to the present, and future, emergencies.

Though Sutter claims services could be relocated to their Summit Campus in Oakland, that facility does not have capacity to serve all the patients who would be displaced. Moreover, while only a few miles away, access to the Summit Campus for many requires passing through the notoriously jammed MacArthur Maze. Added time for an ambulance stuck in traffic can be the difference between life and death. 

Even before the pandemic, hospital closures and mergers had caused a steep decline in the supply of hospital beds in California, meaning many patients need to travel long distances to receive necessary care. Though COVID-19 has not overwhelmed Bay Area hospitals as initially feared, we are not out of the woods yet. If cases surge, there may not be enough beds for all who fall sick, even if they live close by.

The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us that Sutter’s plan to close Alta Bates puts us all at risk. Sutter must commit to investing in Alta Bates or sell their Berkeley properties to another provider that will keep a full-service hospital and emergency room open. 

We don’t know how long we will be fighting COVID-19, nor can we predict when the next crisis will strike. What we do know is that closing Alta Bates could result in lost lives.

In December 2018, the Berkeley City Council sent a letter to Sutter Health requesting formal discussions on the future of Alta Bates. Berkeley is eager to work with Sutter to keep a full-service, emergency and acute care hospital in Berkeley. When this crisis has subsided, we hope Sutter will join us. 

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Sophie Hahn is the vice mayor of Berkeley, shahn@cityofberkeley.info. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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