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Alta Bates Center Threatened With Loss Of Accreditation As Unions Prepare Strike: By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Tuesday November 16, 2004

Berkeley’s Alta Bates Summit Medical Center faces the potential loss of the accreditation status needed to offer service to Medicare and Medicaid patients, following a scathing report from the Joint Commission of Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO). 

The bad news came at a time when the hospital’s largest union has already voted to strike in December.  

Word of the preliminary survey results was confirmed by a Nov. 8 memo to staff from the hospital’s President and CEO Warren Kirk, who warned that “The surveyors indicated that, unless we can successfully clarify and refute some recommendations, we could be at risk to receive a preliminary denial of accreditation.” 

While participation in JCAHO is voluntarily, the overwhelming majority of American hospitals—some 4,500—participate to win federal authorization to treat seniors and patients receiving other aid programs. 

The JCAHO report is only preliminary, and the hospital will have time to rebut allegations before the final report is approved, most likely during JCAHO’s January meeting, Alta Bates spokesperson Carolyn Kemp said Monday. 

While Kemp said the report highlighted issues the hospital has already targeted for improvement—most notably documentation and the hospital’s emergency room—she said there was nothing unusual in the preliminary notes, which were given to the hospital after commission staffers surveyed the facility during the first week of November. 

“There are probably hundreds of hospitals in the same position,” she said. 

JCAHO spokesperson Charlene Hill said the final report won’t be issued for another four months. 

“The organization will receive a report in about two weeks, and they’ll have another two weeks to appeal and demonstrate they were in compliance when the inspectors were on site,” she said. “When the appeal period closes, JCAHO will determine which of the critiques still stand.” 

The hospital will have four months to demonstrate it is in compliance with the commission’s recommendations for improvement. “Generally speaking, hospitals are able to make the necessary changes” and retain accreditation, Hill said.  

Kirk’s memo to staff used italics to emphasize one point: “We must document 100 percent of what we do 100 percent of the time. We each must be accountable for our own responsibilities and adhere to the policies we have in place.” 

The executive’s memo also said that while the JCAHO document makes it clear “we have significant work to do in identified processes and systems, the patient care, clinical outcomes and compassion that we provide to patients are of the highest standards.” 

JCAHO spokesperson Hill declined to comment on the report. 

Kemp acknowledged that the hospital’s emergency room is inadequate for the number of patients it serves, but said major changes are on the way. 

“It wasn’t designed for the present workload, and we’ve been trying to upgrade for 12 years,” Kemp said. “But we’ve finally received federal and state approval for the upgrade, and we hope to have it finished next year.” 

John Borso, vice president of Local 250 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents most Alta Bates workers except for physicians and registered nurses, says he’s skeptical of the hospital’s claims. 

“We’ve been saying for years that Sutter Health Care,” which owns the hospital, “is primarily motivated by profit. While they’ve made a remarkable financial turnaround in the last couple of years, there are major management problems.” 

Local 250 members have voted to strike in December, he said. SEIU employees in Sutter’s other 11 Northern California hospitals have either voted to strike or are scheduled to hold strike votes. By the end of the week, said Borso, “we expect a strike vote in all 12.” 

Borso said Sutter is the only hospital chain in Northern California that has denied the union’s plans to set aside funding for training employees in new technologies so they can advance in their jobs. 

“The fact is, there are management problems because management is so focused on profit,” Borso said.›