As Laguna Honda Hospital transfers vulnerable patients as far away as San Mateo County — with multiple patients dying soon after the moves — advocates, health care officials and families again urged the city Tuesday to keep the hospital open beyond September.
That’s the federal government’s deadline for potentially transferring some 700 vulnerable patients out of the 156-year-old institution. As of this week, city data reports that Laguna Honda has relocated 58 patients; 48 of them have been discharged or transferred to other facilities in the past month and and a bit.
Out of the 35 residents transferred to skilled nursing facilities, all but four have been transferred more than 30 miles south, to San Mateo County. The distance puts them further away from their families, and can exacerbate health problems and lead to an earlier death.
The pair of patients who died just days after being relocated were two of 120 residents who have been greenlit for transfer, said Pat McGinnis, founder of California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform.
Laguna Honda, a geriatric hospital and rehabilitation center, lost federal funding from the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services earlier this year as a result of being decertified for not following Covid-19 protocols. Those violations included not properly washing hands and wearing masks, and storing crash carts, which hold life-saving medicine, behind locked doors. There have also been longstanding problems regarding residents smuggling in and using drugs in the facility.
Even if the city manages to save the flagging hospital, it’ll become smaller. The Centers of Medicare and Medicaid announced it will cut 120 beds from the facility.
“San Franciscans must make an outcry that Laguna Honda stays open for all of us who may need a bed someday and demand that the feds, state and city accomplish this,” said Dr. Teresa Palmer, a geriatrician who worked at Laguna Honda from 1989 to 2004.
The Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services “should extend the funding beyond September. They can easily do that,” said McGinnis, during a zoom meeting Tuesday night that was put together by the Gray Panthers.
Laguna Honda “should stay open, and residents’ rights need to be honored,” said Palmer.
Advocates say shutting down the facility on the federal timeline is impossible.
Moreover, they would like to see the city government more focused on getting residents the housing and care they need.
McGinnis, along with other advocates at the meeting, said regulators were extremely strict in their evaluations of smaller, nonprofit care facilities. McGinnis said some patients are being sent to inferior facilities over infractions that can be “easily corrected.”
“People would be better off at Laguna Hospital than at the other facilities,” she said.
Problems began at Laguna Honda in 2004, when the city moved patients from San Francisco General Hospital into the hospital for the elderly, as part of the Department of Public Health’s Flow project. Those new patients were younger, and many had substance abuse or mental health issues. In short, a nursing facility set aside for older and frail patients became a crisis center.
That change happened despite voters approving a $299 million bond to “save” Laguna Honda in 1999, which was sold as a means of building a 1,200-bed geriatric facility. Instead, the city funneled in younger patients, who were often mentally ill and drug-addicted, into a facility that is slated to soon have only 649 beds.
Laguna Honda Hospital “is not a mental health or behavioral facility,” notes Palmer. “If Laguna continues using the Flow project no matter what happens, we will be in the same position soon.”
In the meantime, Laketha Pierce, an organizer for the Coalition on Homelessness, wants to make sure the move is comfortable for people who aren’t being transferred to facilities, but to homeless shelters. So far, 13 residents have been discharged to medical respites or navigation centers, which don’t have much medical assistance for patients.
This leaves younger patients at crossroads: Be discharged to a shelter where you won’t get your needs taken care of, or be on the streets.
“I just want housing for all,” Pierce said, “Nursing homes being closed just put more people on the street.”