Hospital ceases operation

Effects of closure ripple through community, region


George Morin / The Advocate

An empty parking lot surrounds Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo, California after shutting down on April 21 after failing to secure additional funding, support.

By Lorenzo Morotti, Editor-in-chief

Doctors Medical Center officially closed its doors on April 21 after 60 years of providing medical treatment and services to residents of San Pablo and Richmond.

Now, 250,000 patients in the now closed hospital’s service area, which spanned from Berkeley to Vallejo, and those who are without Kaiser Permanente insurance must seek emergency medical attention as far as Oakland or Walnut Creek.

Contra Costa Health Services Medical Rescue Corps Coordinator Najgrt-Smith said that while DMC did not have a specialized emergency room or acute care clinic, its closing is still an “unfortunate” loss for the community.

Najgrt-Smith said, however, it does not only affect community residents, but students at Contra Costa College.

Majorie Chatman, behavioral science major, said her and her family has been going to DMC for as long as she can remember.

“It sucks that (DMC) shut down,” Chatman said. “But it shows that our (local) governments obviously don’t care about the people in this community because, if they did, then they would have figured out a way to keep (DMC) open.

“Richmond and San Pablo are small cities, but have a lot of people, and they all can’t go to Kaiser because it, too, will be overwhelmed (with patients).”

Najgrt-Smith said, “Many people also forget that many of CCC’s students were not only the hospital’s patients, but are also studying to work in the medical field.”

Nursing department Chairperson Cheri Etheredge said because of the drawn out process of DMC’s closure, the department pulled its nursing students, who were getting required hands-on experience, from the hospital about a year ago.

“We’ve known about the shut down for quite a while,” Dr. Etheredge said. “We hoped people in the community would be able to pull together to keep the hospital going because it was such a great resource for the community and our nursing students.”

Out of the 80 nursing students in the program at CCC, she said half of them are considered advanced. These advanced students are those who have to go to hospitals and volunteer to get necessary experience to graduate.

“Doctor’s Medical closing affects the community negatively,” Etheredge said. “But I don’t think it will be that much of a problem for our program.

“We had to find other hospitals in the region for our students to get training. We started sending them as far as Kaiser in Vacaville. It’s more of a drive for them, but we did what we had to do to keep this program going when we anticipated the (DMC) closure.”

Nursing professor Angela King-Jones said it is a “shame” that the only hospital in San Pablo had to turn patients and nursing students away, considering what made DMC “special.”

“(DMC) couldn’t have been a better place four our (nursing) students to learn,” Dr. King-Jones said. “Not only because of the diverse people within the hospital, but a lot of the nurses who worked there were also CCC graduates.”

Zoila Rosas was part of the last group of nursing students who did rotations at DMC before the department decided to sever ties with the hospital ahead of the impending closure.

“The patient population there was mostly lower class, non-English speaking, minority groups that felt like they had no where else to go,” Rosas said. “(DMC) was a bridge for nursing students to learn what it’s like to work in our diverse community.”

Etheredge agrees with Rosas and said that the hospital provided an eclectic experience for its students and was “literally in CCC’s backyard.”

King-Jones said nursing students have the option of Contra Costa Regional Medical Center in Martinez, Alta Bates in Berkeley, John Muir in Walnut Creek and the various Kaiser hospitals in Richmond, Vallejo, Martinez, and Oakland.

Take a number

Since DMC’s closure, resources have been highlighted to help residents who do not have medical insurance, and who have limited access to transportation, to still receive basic forms of medical treatments.

Contra Costa Health Services is urging residents to call the county’s free, 24-hour nursing advice line at 877-661-6230 for non-life threatening conditions.

And for urgent but non-life threatening medical needs, residents can visit the new LifeLong Urgent Care Center across the street from DMC at 2023 Vale Road in San Pablo.

Najgrt-Smith said, “The (LifeLong Urgent Care Center) meets a lot of the needs that were provided by DMC, except life threatening emergencies. So 911 systems will still be in place and ambulances will continue to respond to medical emergencies — but it will take longer.”

Estimating time of arrival 

On Aug. 7, 2014, DMC’s Emergency Room was closed in order to better prepare paramedics for coping with the extra time it will take to respond to life-threatening situations due to an expected patient overflow at other hospitals.

CCC Emergency Medical Technician instructor Scott Weatherby said while paramedics are faced with adhering to the “golden hour” rule, they will have to travel further in lieu of DMC’s closed E.R.

Weatherby said what would take 10 to 20 minutes to reach an E.R. or acute clinic will now be doubled, without taking traffic into consideration.

He said the “golden hour” is the time it should take paramedics to arrive onto the scene of the accident, assess how serious the injuries are, load the patient into the ambulance and get him or her to the E.R.

“But just because you are in an ambulance, it does not guarantee that you are on a fast track to being treated once you get to the E.R.,” Weatherby said. “When beds are full, there isn’t much you can do but wait.

“So paramedics in this area will have to deal with more people dying in the ambulance or while they wait to be treated.”

He said students in the EMED program at CCC, like the nursing department, will also have to travel farther to get the needed volunteer experience, but will not affect the program as negatively as it will to the community.

EMED students Stephanie St. Onge and Kenyetta Haynes said DMC closing down is a “disservice to the community” and a “tragedy.”

“(DMC) was very convenient for the low income people living in West County who are without transportation in case of an emergency,” St. Onge said. “Other hospitals won’t be able to handle the overflow caused by the closure because there is not enough room.”

Shut down for what?

Najgrt-Smith said DMC had to shut down because it did not have enough revenue to pay its doctors, nurses and employees after multiple ownership changes, short-term funding and a growing number of patients lacking health insurance.

“Obviously every hospital has to take patients whether they can pay or not; it would be against the law not to,” she said. “But a large percentage of DMC’s patients happened to be uninsured or underinsured, and it affected payroll.”

And because more than 80 percent of DMC’s patients’ insurance provider was Medicare or the state-federal Medicaid program known as Medi-Cal, the hospital’s cost of care was not completely covered.

DMC, which was previously named Brookside Hospital, fell under the management of the West Contra Costa Healthcare District in 2004 when Tenet Healthcare, a for-profit health organization that specializes in saving struggling hospitals, refused to renew the lease.

After two approved parcel tax measures and a combined donation of $17 million from Kaiser, Alta Bates Summit Medical Center and Walnut Creek’s John Muir Health System from 2008 to 2010, it seemed as though DMC may remain open.

But because residents rejected a third parcel tax measure last spring, the hospital’s fate was doomed.

Philosophy major Edgar Rosales said the location of DMC may have been a driving factor in why it could not get enough financial support to avert the shut down.

“Say if a hospital was in danger of shutting down in Walnut Creek, it would have had a lot more help from the community because of the funding out there,” Rosales said. “I just don’t get why people in Richmond or San Pablo get the short end of the deal a lot of the time.”

Najgrt-Smith partially agrees with this statement. She said this issue is not isolated to this community, and nationwide closures have forced medical insurance companies to shift from the traditional idea of how hospitals should treat patients.

“It’s important to understand that this is not only focused to San Pablo, but is a nationwide issue,” she said. “Hospital closures are happening across the country — ever since ObamaCare and California’s Affordable Care Act — and the result will be a shift in the way health care is provided.”

Rosas said insurance companies are going to focus more on medical homes to prevent serious illnesses before you need to go to a hospital, and will increase the time nurses have to spend in school.

“A lot of people who lost their jobs after 20 years of working without a Bachelors Degree now have to go back to school,” Rosas said. “You may even have to get a masters now, and that would be an extra two years.”