SAN PABLO -- A man died after being transported by ambulance from Hercules to Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley this week, raising questions about whether the decision earlier this month to stop ambulance transports to Doctors Medical Center San Pablo, which is much closer, led to a delay in care.
The man, who has been identified by other media as Booker Williams of Richmond, died at Alta Bates after being transported by ambulance from a medical clinic in Hercules, according to Dr. Joseph Barger, medical director of Contra Costa Emergency Medical Services.
"I don't have any information to really confirm that," Barger said when asked if going to Alta Bates rather than DMC played a role in the man's death. "The transport time is not a critical issue in this case."
Barger said a physician seeing Williams at the clinic did not think the man needed emergency intervention at a STEMI (high-risk heart attack) center, and Williams chose to be transported by ambulance to Alta Bates, a 25-minute ride.
Barger said he did not know if Williams asked to go to DMC, which is significantly closer, but that going there was not an option anyway. Barger said the extra transport time did not contribute to the death.
County Supervisor John Gioia in an email Friday said that all the facts have to be collected first.
"One cannot know whether this unfortunate death was the result of the ER being on ambulance diversion until all the facts are known from Alta Bates Hospital and the Emergency Medical Services system," Gioia wrote. "But the question as of now is what happened at Alta Bates."
Alta Bates Summit spokeswoman Carolyn Kemp declined to comment on media reports that Williams waited 90 minutes to get treated at the hospital before dying of cardiac arrest Wednesday, citing patient confidentiality laws. She did note that the hospital's ER has seen an increase in ambulance traffic — approximately 80 additional patients -- since Doctors Medical Center stopped accepting transports on Aug. 7.
"We extend our deepest sympathies to the family for their loss," Kemp wrote in an email Friday.
Barger said about 40 ambulances that would have gone to DMC have been rerouted to Alta Bates since Aug. 7 -- about three per day -- and said Kemp's 80 number may include Alameda County ambulance traffic. Alta Bates does not have a specialized STEMI unit.
DMC's administration and governing board decided to stop taking ambulance traffic in early August as it became overwhelmed with patients and more than 80 employees quit as the hospital's finances worsened. The hospital is set to be drastically downsized or closed due to an $18 million budget deficit caused by a high proportion of Medicare patients, who provide low reimbursement rates.
"This situation underscores why there has been a concerted effort to save the DMC emergency department," Gioia said.
Voters rejected a parcel tax in May to provide funds for the hospital, and the county and other area hospitals have not stepped in to close the gap. Since DMC stopped taking ambulance traffic, an average of more than 20 ambulances per day have been diverted to other area hospitals, with most going to Kaiser Permanente Richmond, which has said it is strained by the influx of patients.
Late Friday, Richmond city Councilman Jael Myrick told city officials that Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, had introduced a bill that would make DMC a designated public hospital, a distinction typically afforded to county hospitals, increasing its reimbursements
under Medi-Cal by some $4 million per year.
"It's helpful and we appreciate Assemblywoman Skinner's efforts, but other things would have to happen for the hospital to remain open," Gioia said late Friday.
Gioia and others have warned that people may die if DMC's emergency department closes and transport time to and waiting lines at other hospitals increase.
Nurses unions have called the plan to downsize or close DMC a potential health care crisis and have warned that deaths will pile up due to the loss of the largest emergency room in West County. Earlier this month the unions filed a federal lawsuit against the county and the health care district to halt the ambulance redirection, arguing that it disproportionately impacts seniors, minorities and the poor.
"This is appalling," Eleanor Mahood, a nurse at Doctors Medical Center, said in an email regarding the death. "This tragedy should move the county to immediately take action to restore services at Doctors and then integrate DMC in to the County Health services."
Williams' family could not be reached Friday, but they have told other media that they plan to file grievances against Alta Bates and DMC.
Staff writer Karina Ioffee contributed to this report. Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/sfbaynewsrogers.