Health care keeps getting more and more expensive, especially in Northern California. Sutter Health, which operates Alta Bates Summit Medical Center here in the East Bay, is a big part of the problem. Sutter’s corporate health care model hurts patients, health care workers and our community, and it has made care less affordable for UC Berkeley students and staff as well as the city of Berkeley.
For years, Sutter has driven up the costs of health care throughout Northern California, prompting exposés in various news outlets and a lawsuit from the state of California, which accused Sutter of violating antitrust laws.
One would think that the higher prices at Sutter would mean better care. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Front-line workers at Sutter say their hospitals are constantly understaffed. Being overworked is rough on caregivers, especially during the second year of this pandemic. Additionally, health care workers at Sutter facilities say they are run ragged with little or no time for breaks, and patients in the emergency department often face long wait times for the care they desperately need.
For example, average emergency room wait times at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center are more than an hour longer than those at other hospitals in California. Caregivers say patients in the emergency room who are identified as acutely ill and need hospital admission are sometimes delayed in their transfers from the emergency room to other nursing units because those units don’t have sufficient staffing to take more patients.
Health care workers at Sutter are facing another surge in the fight against COVID-19. Sutter puts up signs saying “Healthcare heroes work here,” but normally, people listen to heroes — and Sutter doesn’t seem to be listening. Health care workers are forced to beg for appropriate staffing to stop the unnecessary patient wait times and delays in care. It’s exhausting, undignified and unheroic.
Workers say they have patients who risk falling when they get up to use the bathroom because there aren’t enough caregivers to monitor their safety. They injure themselves trying to move or lift patients alone because there’s nobody else available to help. And they see emergency room patients waiting hours for potentially life-saving tests because there just aren’t enough technicians to administer the tests.
The situation was bad enough before the pandemic, but Sutter is making it worse. A few years ago, Sutter announced it wants to close the emergency room and inpatient rooms at Alta Bates Summit’s Berkeley hospital. The emergency room on Ashby Avenue sees more than 40,000 patients a year. Where are they supposed to go? For non-Kaiser Permanente patients, the nearest emergency rooms are in downtown Oakland, which can be up to a 20-minute drive in traffic, and the closest emergency room to the north is in Richmond, which is much farther away.
When you’re critically ill, every second counts. The people of Berkeley and the communities up the Interstate 80 corridor deserve better.
Sutter has already made $189 million in profits this year. It received $843 million in taxpayer dollars during the pandemic and it is paying its executives millions in salaries and bonuses. Sutter can afford to keep our full-service local hospital running past 2030, the year it plans to close acute care services in Berkeley.
It’s time for Sutter Health management to listen to caregivers, safely staff their hospitals and put patient and health care worker safety first.