SAN LEANDRO HOSPITAL | When news Sutter Health had purchased a full-page color advertisement in various newspapers just a day before Alameda County Supervisor Wilma was set to discuss the fairness of the health care provider’s non-profit tax exemption, it struck more than a few as no coincidence. It also gave yet another indication the public relations-conscious Sacramento-based corporation has a higher than normal aversion to bad news.

When asked whether Chan’s scheduled 90-minute presentation with Board of Equalization member Betty Yee June 22 had scared Sutter into buying the ad, Chan smiled and said, “I hope so.”

Chan’s candid nature when it comes to Sutter is not surprising. She says Sutter will not talk to her about the impending siutation at San Leandro Hospital. Of course, being persona non grata with Sutter is something of a badge of honor for supporters of keeping the hospital open. “After the lawsuit, no one really knows what’s going on,” Chan said. “I don’t know what’s going on and they’re not allowed to talk about it.” During last Friday’s information-only meeting in San Leandro, Chan said Sutter officials were also invited, but a Sutter spokesman denied the assertion earlier this week.

While Alameda County officials, Eden Township Healthcare District members and Sutter have been noticeably quiet on the future of San Leandro Hospital over the past few months, one union official tells The Citizen Sutter’s ambivalence is tied to its proposed construction of a 550-bed facility at Cathedral Hill in San Francisco. A plan blessed by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee lashed the Cathredral Hill project together with Sutter continuing operations at St. Luke’s Hospital, a facility much like San Leandro Hospital that caters to uninsured and low-income patients. “Sutter cannot have a hospital closing in the East Bay at the same time its in negotiation for Cathedral Hill,” said the representative. In addition, Sutter may not have enough votes on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to move the plan forward anyway.

To demonstrate the interconnectivity of Sutter’s strategies not only in San Francisco, but in similarly controversial battles in Marin, Santa Rosa and San Leandro, the San Francisco Examiner reported the San Francisco Board of Supervisors registered concern over fine points in Sutter’s proposal to continue operating St. Luke’s. Supervisors were surprised to learn Sutter subsidiary, California Pacific Medical Center, could close St. Luke’s if it were to fall below one percent of its operating margin for two consecutive years, the paper reported.

A similar gambit was employed by Sutter in San Leandro following the pivotal signing of a memorandum of understanding in 2008 that ultimately leading to the reconstruction of Eden Hospital in Castro Valley, but put San Leandro Hospital’s future on tenuous footing. Critics say Sutter did not even wait two years to begin plans to close the hospital under the clause. The move later fomented consternation in the community and set the stage for a reconfigured health care district to stymie Sutter’s intentions through the court system. A correction today on the Examiner’s Web site states Sutter does not plan to close St. Luke’s, but the parallels, nontheless, between the two situations are ominous.

As reported last week, doctors and nurses continue to charge the dire financial straits at San Leandro Hospital were created by Sutter through creative accounting. Sutter’s state hospital license covers both San Leandro and Eden leading many critics to say Sutter is cooking the books as precursor to closing the facility and its emergency room.

Sutter also received a stinging blow in Marin County where an arbitrator last week ordered them to pay the Marin Healthcare District over $21 million. Critics had charged Sutter with siphoning $180 million in profits away from Marin General Hospital in anticipation of turning over the facility to the District. More bad news is also expected for Sutter in August when a state legislative audit of its business practices, recommended last year by Sen. Ellen Corbett, is due to be released.