Local health care advocacy group blasts sale of Chanate Road campus

A group formed in the aftermath of the November election says the sale of the former Sutter Medical Center off Chanate Road to a developer is shortsighted and wants it delayed.|

Dr. Panna Lossy is no political gadfly. You won't find her queuing up every Tuesday to address the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors during the public comment portion of the weekly meetings.

That's because Lossy, a family care physician who has been practicing in the community for more than 20 years, works long hours caring for patients at the Vista Family Health Center in Santa Rosa or teaching the next generation of family doctors at the Santa Rosa Family Practice Residency.

But in recent weeks, Lossy and other local physicians have turned to activism, targeting the county's plan to sell the 82-acre site of the former Sutter Medical Center off Chanate Road in Santa Rosa to a local developer who wants to build up to 800 new housing units there. Though the deal has not been finalized, developer Bill Gallaher and his team would pay between $6 million and $12 million for the property, depending on the number of housing units ultimately built.

The sale, which could soon become final, would be the county's largest sale of land in recent history. Championed by Supervisor Shirlee Zane, whose district includes the property, the sale also represents a significant effort on the part of the county to shore up the supply of available housing units at a time of rising rental prices.

But Lossy and other members of a new health care advocacy group called H-PEACE are waging an uphill battle to slow the sale and project, which they call a “giveaway” that flies in the face of the property's more than 100-year history and tradition as a health care safety net for the county's low-income residents.

“I was just shocked. I was just floored - both that they were selling it so cheaply and that there hasn't been more public process,” Lossy said. “It seems so shortsighted to sell this huge community asset when there are so many external forces that are making it very difficult to provide care to a vulnerable community.”

Budget concerns

The advocacy group of about 175 mostly doctors and nurses concerned about health care needs in Sonoma County, points to efforts by President Donald Trump and Republican lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to eliminate the Affordable Care Act, which greatly expanded Medicaid coverage to working class Americans. Proposed cuts to Medicaid would happen around the same time a crucial health care safety net agreement between the county and Sutter Health ends.

County officials point out that the sale of the property and the health care services for the poor, many of which are no longer provided at the Chanate complex, are two separate issues. The county is committed to maintaining health care services even after the agreement with Sutter Health expires, said Barbie Robinson, director of the county Department of Health Services.

Robinson said county officials and the area's largest health care providers - Sutter Health, Kaiser Permanente and St. Joseph Health - and the numerous community health centers have all been playing an important part in caring for indigent and low-income residents. Robinson said she “can empathize” with H-PEACE's concerns, but trusts a solution can be found.

“I'm hopeful and optimistic about our community coming together to identify collective solutions.” she said. “We're doing it now on a number of issues.”

For some physicians who for years worked at one of the many health care buildings at the Chanate complex, the loss of that history is a difficult pill to swallow.

In its heyday, the sprawling complex featured the county-run Community Hospital, a county-run inpatient psychiatric hospital, outpatient mental health offices, the Santa Rosa Family Practice Residency for doctors-in-training, and county public health offices and laboratory facilities.

In 1996, the county forged an agreement with Sutter Health to take over operations of the medical and psychiatric hospital, as well as the residency program. The agreement, known as the Health Care Access Agreement, or HCAA, also required Sutter to provide a number of other services to county patients, including cardiac services, charity care, outpatient clinic services, women's reproductive services and pediatric care.

Prior to the HCAA, county officials said Community Hospital had been losing $3 million a year for the past five years due to increased competition in the county for insured patients, reductions in Medicaid and Medicare, and reduced reimbursement rates from commercial insurance.

Dwindling services

Over the years, services once provided at the campus either were shuttered or moved out. The county closed the Norton Center psychiatric hospital in 2007 after decades as the county's primary hospital for those with mental illness. The closure was brought on by financial losses at the hospital - the HCAA called for the county to pay Sutter the difference between the patient cost of care and the reimbursement Sutter got from insurers.

That cost to the county was about $2 million annually in the last five years before the closure. The family practice residency, still sponsored by Sutter, left the campus when Southwest Community Health Centers moved its Vista Family Health Center building to Round Barn Circle.

Sutter Health moved out of the old Community Hospital after opening its new hospital next to the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in 2014. Only the public health lab and administration buildings, a county mental health clinic and administration offices, the Sloan House women's shelter, a wellness center for people with mental illness and a bird rescue center remain at the site.

“The county has divested itself from providing direct patient care in large part,” said Lossy. “They don't have any clinics any more that could do these services. For example, maternal and child health clinic … patients are being seen at community health centers now.”

Coverage gap

When the HCAA expires in 2021, who is going to provide services to the poor, she asked.

H-PEACE, an acronym for Health Professionals for Equality and Community Empowerment, formed in the aftermath of the November election and the GOP's promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. It held a community forum May 17 at the Vista Family Health Center to discuss the future of such services in Sonoma County, attracting local physicians, homeless advocates and community organizers.

Last week, Lossy and other members of H-PEACE attended a meeting of the Board of Supervisors to air their concerns during the public comment period. They called on supervisors to put the brakes on the sale until the county decides who will provide services to the poor after the HCAA expires.

Dr. Ember Keighley, a local family practice physician who teaches obstetrics at Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital as part of the residency program, said she's troubled by the national political climate.

“Under the new proposed GOP health care plan there will 23 million people nationwide who become uninsured,” said Keighley, a member of H-PEACE. “So therefore the safety net that we've built may no longer be sufficient to care for the newly uninsured.”

Keighley said the Republican health care bill also attempts to remove funding from any clinic that provides abortion services. Local health centers receive generous support from the Medicaid program. But she said health centers use private funding to support women's reproductive services.

Lossy and Keighley said one local clinic already halted abortion services in December after it received a survey from the federal inspector general at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that went to every community health center in the country asking whether abortions are conducted.

H-PEACE is also critical of the sale price of the Chanate property, which may actually end up being lower after the county agreed to remove the roughly 10-acre Paulin Creek Open Space Preserve from the 82-acre site.

The county proposes leasing back some of the building space it currently occupies, including the public health lab and administration offices, and the county morgue.

That would reduce the amount the county is actually getting for the property.

Changed landscape

Robinson, the director of the county health services department, said the health care landscape has greatly changed since the county signed the health care agreement with Sutter. All the local hospitals provide a degree of safety net service through their community benefits programs and charity care, she said.

“Whether there is or isn't an agreement, I believe that we will have a residency program and all hospital systems will continue to provide the services that are identified in the health care access agreement,” Robinson said. “We've also built up the capacity of our [health center] partners.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor