Founded in 1912 as The Baby Hospital, today UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland is a major pediatric care center serving a region with many low-income families. Credit: Amir Aziz

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Ashley Momoh was born in Oakland and received treatment for her chronic health condition at Children’s Hospital Oakland, a renowned medical institution known for its research into the chronic condition, and its mission of caring for the sickest children regardless of insurance. 

“Growing up with a chronic disease, Children’s Hospital played a vital role as a support system for my family,” Momoh said. “Then, it felt like a community health center that was warm and compassionate, compared to other hospitals. Children’s Hospital is truly like a gem.” 

Speaking during a virtual community town hall organized by the National Union of Healthcare Workers with about a hundred people Wednesday evening, Momoh, 23, said that care changed when Children’s Hospital Oakland partnered with the University of California, San Francisco to become UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland nearly eight years ago.

“Instead of the focus being on a curated health plan, I began to meet with more medical students and groups of doctors who were essentially intrigued by my medical condition,” Momoh said. “I no longer felt that playful and vibrant energy in the hospital.” 

Wednesday’s town hall was a continuation of long standing complaints by some workers and patients at Children’s Hospital Oakland, who say that the merger with UCSF fundamentally changed key parts of operations at the facility on Martin Luther King Junior Way near the Berkeley border, to the detriment of staff and patients. 

Lorna Fernandes, a spokesperson for UCSF, told The Oaklandside in an email that the complaints are not accurate and come at a time when UCSF is in midst of contract negotiations with the National Union of Healthcare Workers, or NUHW, which represents therapists, clinical social workers, psychologists, and many other categories of employees at Children’s. 

“It is disappointing that NUHW is promoting misleading and inaccurate claims in the midst of our good faith negotiations to finalize the one remaining contract for the employees they represent,” Fernandes wrote. 

Fernandes also noted that UCSF has invested $316 million to “rebuild and modernize the Oakland hospital’s facilities,” including a new outpatient pavilion and pediatric intensive care unit, and plans to invest another $1 billion for further construction and renovations for its Oakland campus.

A complicated merger

As The Oaklandside reported in February, former board members and past and current employees have voiced concerns about how Children’s Hospital’s affiliation with UCSF has impacted its mission and level of care it can provide to families in the East Bay. 

The 2014 merger helped Children’s Hospital gain some financial stability, while allowing the hospital to remain a separate nonprofit entity. It also promised to help the hospital get more involved in academic research and have greater access to philanthropic donations, The Oaklandside previously reported. 

“But doctors, nurses, healthcare workers and patients CHO serves tell a different story,” said Laura Nakamura, a cardiac sonographer at the Children’s Hospital Walnut Creek clinic. 

The merger has created higher fees for its patients, moved some of its most sought-after services to San Francisco, and lost doctors and specialists, namely in its internationally renowned sickle cell disease program. 

This week, UCSF announced it had received $17 million in research grants to launch a trial to use CRISPR gene-editing technology to hopefully find a cure for sickle cell disease. In the announcement, UCSF called the grant the largest in the hospital’s history. 

One recurring problem, some Children’s Hospital workers have said, is how often patients are rerouted away from the Oakland facility to UCSF’s Mission Bay campus in San Francisco, an 11-mile drive or hour-long trip via public transportation from Children’s Hospital in Oakland. 

Cecilia Morales, an office associate at Children’s Hospital since 2007, said she’s noticed that those being sent to San Francisco have private insurance, but UCSF won’t answer NUHW member questions about what criteria is used when referring patients there. 

“Patients continue to be forced to go to the city against their will,” Morales said. “This is very unfair to the families, especially for those that are low-income and have no means to travel to San Francisco.” 

When Clarissa Doutherd gave birth to her son 14 years ago, they were unhoused and he was hospitalized with severe asthma and pneumonia several times at Children’s Hospital. 

“Claims that patients are sent away from Oakland are misleading because they provide a false and incomplete picture of how a single pediatric health system with two campuses operates.”

UCSF spokesperson Lorna Fernandes

Now as executive director of Parent Voices Oakland—a parent-led grassroots organization that advocates for affordable, accessible, and quality childcare—Doutherd doesn’t know if she could have gotten over to San Francisco to get the all-around care her son needed. 

“These were life and death situations,” Doutherd said. “And I don’t know where I would be if I wasn’t close to home, if there weren’t healthcare workers there who understood that I was having a rough time, who didn’t marginalize or judge me or question me around that and just provided the care that my son needed.”

Martha Kuhl—who has been a registered nurse at Children’s Hospital for nearly four decades and is also treasurer of the California Nurses Association and the first vice president of the Alameda Labor Council—said questions to UCSF about why some patients are being directed to San Francisco, and the decision behind that, have gone unanswered for years. 

“Anecdotally, we’ve been hearing that kids with insurance are being directed one direction and kids without insurance are being kept at Children’s [Oakland],” she said.

Kuhl and others were concerned about fewer services to treat respiratory illnesses, one of the major reasons children are hospitalized, even outside of a pandemic. 

“To have reduced that service has had a significant effect on our patients, not to mention longer waits for care and less prevention of illness,” she said. “All those things harm our patients.”

But Fernandes said UCSF sends its patients and physicians across the Bay Bridge in both directions, “depending on which location is best suited to deliver the specific care their patients need.” 

“Claims that patients are sent away from Oakland are misleading because they provide a false and incomplete picture of how a single pediatric health system with two campuses operates,” Fernandes said via email. 

Local officials weigh in

Besides Children’s staff, local elected officials who attended the virtual town hall meeting expressed their concerns over changes at Children’s Hospital and how they have impacted families in the East Bay.

Oakland City Councilmember Dan Kalb, who hosted a similar forum about Children’s earlier this year, said leaders need to rethink the hospital’s relationship with UCSF, especially after hearing concerns about certain patients being redirected from Oakland to San Francisco. 

“That should be a thing of the past,” he said of Children’s Oakland patients needing to go to San Francisco for care. “That should be an experiment that is over.” 

Oakland Council President Pro Tem Sheng Thao was once a single mother living in her car with her son. She said it would have been difficult if they were forced to receive care in San Francisco, which would have included paying the bridge toll, parking, and other expenses when money is already tight. 

“How can we ask people to make these decisions? It’s cruel. It’s truly cruel,” Thao said. “I truly believe that we shouldn’t allow for profit to somehow trump people’s livelihood and their basic needs of healthcare, especially for their children and their families.”

California Assemblymember Mia Bonta, whose district includes Oakland, spoke about when one of her children was two years old and suffering through a respiratory crisis. She said at Children’s Hospital they were fortunate to have “the beauty and the benefit of people who were open and willing to take care of us with incredible grace, during our darkest moments.” To take that care out of the East Bay and require a car or BART ride, she said, “is, quite frankly, heartbreaking. It is not what we expected of this merger.”