2 Investigates: Solution to overcrowding at John George may still be far off

The push for a solution to chronic overcrowding at John George Psychiatric Hospital’s emergency room may stretch on for months, after the Alameda County Board of Supervisors Health Committee again deferred discussion of the problem to its next monthly meeting.

2 Investigates has been looking into crowded conditions at the hospital’s emergency room – called PES – since May. Leaked hidden camera video showed mental patients sleeping and eating on floor because there aren’t enough beds. Staff members complained that overcrowded conditions were allegedly putting staff and patient safety at risk.

“Having people hang out in PES on mats crammed together is causing people to get hurt. It's causing patients who are vulnerable to get hurt,” said nurse Rachael Otis. “Unfortunately, we're not able to accommodate the need.”

For the second month in a row, the supervisors on the Health Committee heard from officials with Alameda Health Systems (AHS), which runs John George, about the problem. AHS administrators admitted that overcrowding was an issue and presented ideas for short- and long-term solutions, including hiring more on-call doctors, diverting patients to other local resources, and a multi-million dollar expansion proposal that stalled three years ago.

Nurses and doctors who work at PES said they want the number of patients to be capped at 50 per day. The entire board of supervisors would have to vote to approve a cap at PES before such a change could be implemented.

But emergency room workers at other hospitals around the county said a cap is not a viable solution because their own departments would end up with the spillover of patients.

“We can't close our hospital emergency departments and patients will continue to flow in,” said Rebecca Rosen, Regional Vice President with the Hospital Council in the East Bay.

AHS officials said the number of patients treated at PES dropped from an average of 51 per day in June, to just over 47 per day in July. They credited the addition of newly-hired on-call doctors for the change, but current staff said it was still too early to tell if the staffing changes are really helping.

Last month, a judge denied a temporary restraining order filed by attorneys for the union representing John George’s doctors, seeking to prevent those new hires, saying it put current doctors’ job in jeopardy. AHS says it is still in negotiations with the union over its contract.

The supervisors acknowledged that the overcrowding issue was urgent, but again pushed off further discussion until their next meeting on September 19.

“We can't just keep saying we're going to fix it eventually. I think there has to be more definitive solutions,” said Supervisor Wilma Chan.

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