Calls mount for Sutter to continue urgent care in Scotts Valley
On a recent Sunday, Scotts Valley resident Sara Gonzales-Erhan walked past Sutter Health’s Urgent Care facility on Scotts Valley Drive with her daughter. The stroll served as a reminder of how staff at the location made a minor emergency last year less painful.
Elsa Erhan, who was 12 at the time, had hurt her ankle while running around the couch during some pandemic-era playtime, and needed the doctor to tell her just how bad it was.
“When I went there, she was really, really nice about it,” she said, adding the physician said she hadn’t broken anything, and shared helpful healing tips. “They were really easy to follow.”
Gonzales-Erhan, 46, told her daughter, who is now 13, that Sutter Health is planning to shutter the facility and bring in other services—primary and pediatric—and that the House lawmaker who represents the area’s been trying to convince the company to reverse course.
That effort gained steam July 14, when Rep. Anna G. Eshoo spoke with the health company’s top brass by phone and demanded they gather the community to explain why they’re making the move.
On July 16, a Sutter Health spokesperson said “local leaders from Sutter Health and the Palo Alto Medical Foundation had a productive meeting with Congresswoman Anna Eshoo earlier this week.”
Eshoo said she felt like she got some traction, but the result left much to be desired.
“I’m upset,” Eshoo told the Press Banner July 15, the day after speaking to Sutter CEO Sarah Krevans. “It’s deeply disappointing to me how my constituents are being treated.”
Eshoo is one of the most powerful politicians in Washington who’s been working on health matters long before she helped pass the Affordable Care Act—aka Obamacare. She spent much of her time as a San Mateo County Supervisor on such issues.
With the CZU Lightning Complex fires still visible in the rear-view mirror for many who are served by the Scotts Valley urgent care facility, and given how commuting across Santa Cruz can be a time-consuming proposition, Eshoo says closing it isn’t fair for residents.
“Being stuck in traffic with a 45-minute drive doesn’t fit with the word ‘urgent,’” she said. “This really landed like a bomb in the community.”
Gonzales-Erhan first learned of the closure plan through social media site Nextdoor.
“I was actually like, ‘Could this be true?’” she recalled. “I felt like the rug was pulled out from under me.”
Numerous comments on the site related astonishment, anger, frustration and annoyance.
“I think it is inexcusable that they haven’t notified patients who use the facility of its impending closure,” wrote user Janet Barlow, of Scotts Valley. “Sutter is getting way too big for its britches!”
A Bear Creek Woods resident offered to help fight back: “I’d be willing to join a picket line in Scotts Valley if you think that would help spread awareness in the community,” said poster Sonia Wyman.
Glen Arbor resident Joyce Spencer commented that she’d reached out to Sutter Health directly and never got a reply.
But the reason Gonzales-Erhan was taken aback by the news, was that she hasn’t had much luck getting her family health care protection anywhere nearby, despite being a longtime Sutter customer.
“I’ve been with Palo Alto Medical (Foundation) since 1985,” she said. “It isn’t like I’m calling Sutter and saying ‘I want to establish as a new patient.’”
She switched from a doctor in Mountain View to a doctor in Los Altos, for herself, and to Los Gatos health care for her kids—signing them up with Stanford Children’s Health.
Just two weeks before she saw the Nextdoor post, she’d called one of their Santa Cruz locations in the hopes they wouldn’t have to be tied to facilities in Silicon Valley.
The Sutter rep said she’d have to keep driving long distances for care, not because of a lack of physical space for doctors, but rather, because the company had a hard time hiring employees, according to Gonzales-Erhan. So reading the post, she wondered if they might eliminate one form of care only to struggle to staff the reoriented facility.
A Sutter spokesperson did not respond when asked directly about the comment.
At one point, Gonzales-Erhan had a problem with her knee, so she went to the Scotts Valley urgent care. She left feeling as positive about the experience as her daughter did after the twisted-ankle situation.
“The doctors that we saw at that urgent care, they’re really good,” she said. “They really take people’s concerns seriously.”
She was referred to a specialist in Santa Cruz, but that wasn’t the end of it. She got a follow-up call. The doctor was checking to make sure everything had worked out, Gonzales-Erhan said.
“You get so used to being in this ‘mill’—like a ‘patient mill,’” she said, explaining why the personal touch meant so much to her. “They’re just really friendly.”
Sutter says it will still offer same-day appointments in Scotts Valley.
Eshoo says Sutter “mishandled” the roll-out, and wonders if money had something to do with the decision—as in many corners of the health care industry.
“If you scratch beneath the surface a little, it usually has something to do with finances—but I don’t know for certain that’s what it is,” she said. “I think that people really deserve to hear from Sutter.”
Now the ball’s in the health giant’s court, according to Eshoo.
“I think that Sutter has a way to go in order to move back into a column of satisfactory performance here,” she said. “It’s up to them to pick up the ball.”
Two years ago, when 75-year-old Shirli McLaughlin had a minor medical emergency, she headed across the hills from Felton, where she lives, to Sutter Health’s Urgent Care facility on Scotts Valley Drive.
“I was grateful to have a place to go that was so close,” she says.
Now that Sutter Health is transforming their Scotts Valley facility from urgent care to family medicine and pediatrics—with some same day appointments—McLaughlin says she’s concerned. “I would have had to go all the way to Dominican.”
Sutter Health plans to make the switch Aug. 30. It’s also reopening its Westside Urgent Care location at 1301 Mission St. in Santa Cruz. But the health giant is having a hard time bringing in doctors—as company officials confirmed during a virtual Q&A involving Sutter Health and community members on July 26. The one-hour meeting was hastily organized after local congressional representative Anna G. Eshoo, who chairs the health subcommittee of the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., put pressure on Sutter CEO Sarah Krevans to host one.
A few days earlier, when Good Times reached Eshoo, she’d just emerged from a Capitol Hill mark-up session that touched on Medicaid, the opioid crisis, and children’s vaccinations. She says she was troubled to hear Sutter was decreasing access to health care for residents in her district.
“This issue is deeply upsetting to people,” says Eshoo. “This really landed like a bomb in the community.”
Eshoo says she feels like the issue was “mishandled” and revealed she’d just met with top Sutter brass to push for the community meeting. She asked them to explain why some residents will be forced into crosstown traffic to reach other urgent care destinations.
“Being struck in traffic with a 45-minute drive doesn’t fit with the word ‘urgent,’” she said. “Their patients deserve better.”
During the Monday evening Q&A, in response to a question about transparency, Dr. Lawrence DeGehtaldi, president of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation Santa Cruz at Sutter Health, apologized for not including patients in the decision-making process.
“That is a fair point,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
Sutter, through the affiliated nonprofit Palo Alto Medical Foundation, serves one million patients across San Mateo, Santa Clara, Alameda and Santa Cruz counties.
During the livestream, patients weren’t given the opportunity to speak, instead submitting written questions. Officials claimed financial concerns weren’t at the heart of their shifting of local health priorities.
Instead, administrators said, it represents a strategic realignment, as the health system plans for an influx of more than 5,000 new potential patients to the area.
Dr. Rebecca Barker, Sutter’s chief physician in Santa Cruz County, tried to impress upon virtual attendees the difficulty involved in attracting physicians.
“There’s not been enough primary care doctors,” she said. “That has been a big challenge for me. I’ve had to figure out how to get you all primary care doctors.”
Dr. Chris Bernardi, who’s worked at the Scotts Valley Urgent Care Center, said in many ways the location already functions as a de facto family medicine facility and pointed to staffing challenges.
“You can see all the development popping up in Scotts Valley proper and in the surrounding communities,” he said. “I’m doing everything I can on my end to bring in new patients.”
Sutter plans to reduce hours at the location from 8am-5pm seven days a week to 8am–5pm on weekdays, but will still take same-day appointments. Officials pledged doctors would continue to take on evening and weekend work, but wouldn’t commit to forcing them to do this, suggesting it would make retaining employees harder.
And that would be a problem, Barker said, since it’s competitive right now to attract family physicians.
DeGehtaldi said the services Sutter is bringing to Scotts Valley will better serve people with behavioral and mental health issues—like an anxiety attack—care which has been increasingly required during the pandemic, particularly after the CZU Lightning Complex fire.
Barker said the vast majority of these cases aren’t handled by urgent care doctors or psychiatrists, but by primary care physicians. That’s all happening online now, since the coronavirus showed up, she added.
With its Westside Center Urgent Care location reopening, the tension in the system will be easing shortly, Barker says.
“I’m not saying that the Scotts Valley patients will ultimately go there,” she said, adding another problem is health care workers who spent a year-and-a-half on the frontlines of the pandemic are taking “well overdue vacations” this summer.
When a community member asked about the problem some people have encountered in which their insurance plans charge them more money to get primary care or to visit the emergency room than if they were to go to an urgent care location, DeGehtaldi brushed off the concern.
“The standard office visit charges are the same,” he said, suggesting urgent care actually costs more with some insurance providers. “Sutter’s support for this community has been strong and important.”
When the same questioner claimed Sutter was removing care options in the area, DeGehtaldi disagreed. He pointed to Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s expansion from three county sites to almost 20 in recent years.
But he conceded there is one big gap in their Santa Cruz County strategy: the San Lorenzo Valley.
Scotts Valley City Councilman Randy Johnson said DeGehtaldi was invited to attend a small gathering of patients two days earlier, but didn’t show up. There, multiple area residents shared about situations where urgent care saved their lives.
“It just keeps piling on that this has been and will be a top-down decision, with zero collaboration,” Johnson said. “It’s business for them. It’s personal for us.”
Johnson said Sutter needs to stop complaining about Kaiser Permanente not taking a bigger share of poor, government-covered patients and come up with effective care solutions.
“They’re kind of taking the easy way out,” he said. “You have problems? Be creative.”
lead, news, Scotts Valley, Sutter Health
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Sutter Health Palo Alto Medical Foundation for Health Care, Research and Education (PAMF) is a not-for-profit health care organization dedicated to enhancing the health of people in our communities.
This includes more than 1,0,000 patients and in five Bay Area counties: Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties.
PAMF is part of Sutter Health, a network of not-for-profit hospitals and physician organizations throughout Northern California that share resources and expertise to advance health care quality.
Serving more than 100 communities in Northern California, Sutter Health is a regional leader in cardiac care as well as care of women and children, and is a pioneer in advanced patient safety technology.
Sutter Health?s Peninsula Coastal Region also includes Mills-Peninsula Health Services, based in Burlingame and San Mateo.
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