Reversing a decision made four years ago, Kaiser Permanente has decided not to close its Oakland, Calif., hospital, citing rising patient census and a reassessment of its needs in the east San Francisco Bay area.
The announcement last week followed the unpublicized settlement of a 2-year-old lawsuit filed by the California Nurses Association against the Oakland-based HMO giant. The CNA alleged that Kaiser was deliberately closing its proprietary hospitals in low-income communities to reduce its indigent-care load.
Neither Kaiser nor the CNA would comment on the lawsuit or its settlement or their possible connection with the decision to keep Kaiser Foundation Hospital open. Observers speculated that a reversal of policy on Kaiser's Oakland hospital may have been part of the deal to resolve the lawsuit.
Kaiser had planned to close the 264-bed Oakland facility in 1996. Under state law, all California hospitals must be updated to meet advanced seismic-safety codes before 2008. Kaiser decided in the mid-1990s that the 1972 structure would not adapt well to retrofitting.
Kaiser's decision to close the hospital came concurrently with a decision to close its hospitals in the nearby communities of Richmond and Martinez, both low-income and heavily populated by racial minorities. The nurses union criticized the moves and mobilized public and political pressure to force Kaiser to back off. The closure of the Martinez hospital went through, but the Richmond closure decision was reversed.
The CNA represents 1,080 nurses at the three facilities, and they would have lost their jobs if the hospitals had shut down.
"I credit the nurses," said community activist Susan Prather. "They fought like hell for that. It's the nurses and healthcare workers that got it reopened. The community rallied behind them."
In 1998 the nurses union filed a lawsuit to stop the Martinez closure. It said Kaiser was using "medical redlining" to effectively drop service areas it didn't want to handle any more.
Charles Idelson, CNA spokesman, said he was not at liberty to discuss the lawsuit or the settlement.
Kaiser covers 5.9 million Californians, including 207,000 people in the Oakland area. In 1995, Kaiser Oakland's average daily census was 115. Now it is closer to 175.
"Kaiser Permanente has experienced robust membership growth" in the region, said Kaiser spokesman Bettylu Smith.