The Alameda County Board of Supervisors will investigate allegations made by hospital workers that Alameda Health System hospitals were unprepared for the pandemic and have failed to protect employees during the covid-19 crisis, they said this week.
In addition, Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan said she will present an alternative governance model for oversight of Alameda Health System, which operates Highland Hospital, among other local health care facilities. But the potential change will not occur until after the state’s shelter in place orders are lifted.
Since the onset of the pandemic in the Bay Area last month, pre-existing questions about the governance of Alameda Health System, in addition, to labor strife between the hospital administration and unions, have again come to the forefront.
Two weeks ago, unions representing medical workers at Highland Hospital sent a letter to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors encouraging them to take over control of the hospital system, which also includes Alameda Hospital, San Leandro Hospital, and other facilities in the county.
A continuing lack of protective medical equipment for workers to deal with the outbreak was one of the reasons for the union’s request. Several news reports detailed one emergency room nurse wearing a garbage bag fashioned into makeshift protective gear.
Covid is a crisis on top of a crisis. Mismanagement and accountability to AHS leadership has to be addressed.-Nato Green, SEIU Local 1021 rep.
“We have been bombarded, as a board, with these allegations,” Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson said, during a special meeting Tuesday afternoon with the Alameda Health System Board of Trustees.
The model of governance currently in place includes an eight-member Alameda Health System board that is appointed by the Board of Supervisors. But Chan said on Tuesday that questions about the efficacy of the arrangement have long existed among county supervisors.
Others on the board, in particular, Supervisor Scott Haggerty, have long harangued Alameda Health System officials about its ongoing repayment of a loan to help rebuild and expand the Highland Hospital campus. Alameda Health System owes the county roughly $160 million.
The board’s enmity toward hospital officials was highlighted further last Tuesday when Chan asked Alameda Health System CEO Delvecchio Finley about a rumor that hospital management was blaming the shortage of protective equipment on the county because they are “not giving us enough money.” Finley adamantly denied the allegation. “No. No. No,” he told Chan. “To my knowledge, we haven’t said such a thing.”
Nato Green, a representative for the Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents the hospital workers, said its members have been raising concerns about Alameda Health System for years. “Covid is a crisis on top of a crisis,” Green said. “Mismanagement and accountability to AHS leadership has to be addressed.”
But any change to the governance structure of Alameda Health System will not come immediately, Chan said. “Right now we have to concentrate on the covid-19 issue,” she said. Once Gov. Gavin Newsom’s shelter in place order is lifted, Chan said she will initiate a 60-day process to create a new governance model with “direct, clear lines of accountability to our board and that prioritizes productivity and labor relations.” Any governance proposal will first be vetted at the board’s health committee, she added.
After making the announcement during a board of supervisors meeting on Tuesday, Chan and other supervisors provided more specifics to the plan during a special meeting with the Alameda Health System trustees later in the day. Most hospital trustees voiced displeasure with the idea of spending the next month gathering information about the operation of the hospital facilities in the midst of a pandemic.
Dr. Noha Aboelata, the president of the Alameda Health System Board of Trustees, said the move will undermine its role as overseer of the hospitals. “I would like to do my job. This is my role,” Aboelata said.
Trustees also disagreed with the Board of Supervisors about the efficiency of having two groups investigate the hospitals at the same time — one from the Board of Supervisors and one from the Board of Trustees. At one point during the discussion, Alameda Health System Trustee Joe DeVries, also a member of the Oakland city administration, threw up his hands in despair when Chan acknowledged two separate entities would be involved in the process. “Why aren’t we doing it together from day one?” DeVries asked. Chan’s response was “It’s the best we can do.”
Earlier, DeVries dismissed social media posts showing Highland medical workers wearing garbage bags because the hospital failed to provide proper protective equipment as “political theater.”
County supervisors, however, were unmoved by the criticism. “This is nothing personal,” Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley repeatedly told the trustees. Instead, the historical problems with oversight of the hospitals is systemic, “regardless of who is on the Board of Trustees.”
Carson was far more blunt about the need to investigate the hospitals and allowing the process to unfold however it may. “I don’t think we should be playing with people lives,” Carson said. “If they say it is unfounded, then we move on.”