South San Francisco, CA August 8, 2022 By David J. Canepa and Lindsay Raike
NOTE: The following guest perspective is in response to the July 28 Bay City News article “Sutter Health responds to rally against therapy pool closure in San Mateo.”
On July 24, over one hundred activists and elected officials participated in an impassioned rally urging Sutter Health to reopen the Mack E. Mickelson warm water therapy pool, the only facility of its kind on the Peninsula. Present at the rally were former patrons, many in wheelchairs, some with medical oxygen—all desperate to return to the warm water that for some had been the only way to ease their pain and have a decent quality of life.
Unfortunately, Sutter failed to take these former pool patrons and their supporters seriously. Instead, Sutter issued a boilerplate response filled with platitudes and inaccuracies that failed to explain why it refuses to reopen the pool.
For starters, the Sutter spokesperson said that “continued uncertainty surrounding COVID” restrictions is a driving factor in the not-for-profit’s decision to permanently close the only warm water therapy pool in the county, despite the reopening of similar therapy pools in Santa Clara and San Francisco counties.
But there is no uncertainty regarding COVID restrictions in San Mateo County. Recognizing that facilities such as the Mickelson therapy pool are vital to the health and well-being of the community, they were expressly exempt from closure during the pandemic. According to San Mateo County Health Supervising Environmental Health Specialist Helen Godinez, “Therapeutic pools were exempt from any closures during the peak Covid mandate. Therefore, therapeutic pools have been allowed to provide access during COVID and the present.”
The Sutter spokesperson then blithely asserted that “our focus on providing quality acute care services and our ongoing efforts to be good stewards of resources have led us to close the program.”
Let’s take a look at Sutter’s resources. At year-end 2020, the healthcare giant had $7.8 billion in total cash, cash equivalents, and investments. Sutter reportedly received $853 million in federal CARES Act funding, which was passed for the express purpose of keeping vital community resources such as the Mickelson therapy pool open during the COVID pandemic. According to CARES Act guidelines, “retrofitting facilities” [to accommodate challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic] was one of the approved, reportable uses for these precious federal funds.
Sutter received nearly a billion dollars from the federal government designed to save programs such as the Mickelson therapy pool and instead closed the pool.
Why would Sutter do this? Why is Sutter so intent on “providing quality acute care services” at the expense of rehabilitation, therapy, and health maintenance offerings? It’s true that acute services are far more profitable, but Sutter is a not-for-profit company whose mission is theoretically to serve the community. Must all of its vast resources be spent on acute care while dozens of desperately needed rehabilitation and health maintenance programs are cut?
But Sutter doesn’t even need to rely on its huge war chest of cash reserves to reopen the Mickelson therapy pool. The Peninsula Health Care District has offered to fully fund all necessary repairs, remodeling and operational costs required to reopen the therapy pool until a permanent replacement becomes available. Sutter declined this generous offer.
Even worse, the Sutter spokesperson denies the true history of the Mickelson therapy pool, declaring that it was “not a community pool and was never publicly funded.” In reality, the $4 million Mickelson facility, which opened 25 years ago, was financed entirely by community donations, including $1.5 million from the late philanthropist Mack E. Mickelson. Plaques on the wall next to the pool also showcase the names of over 200 significant community donors.
We have reached out to Mills-Peninsula Medical Center CEO Janet Wagner, Sutter Health CEO James Conforti, and Sutter Health Government Affairs Director Melissa White requesting that they meet with us and other stakeholders to discuss a viable solution.
To date, Sutter has declined.
Warm Water Wellness, a coalition of healthcare workers, local government officials, and former pool users backed by nearly 5,000 petition signatures have demanded that Sutter either reopen the therapy pool or refund the philanthropic donations, $7.2 million in today’s dollars, that Mills-Peninsula initially received to construct the Mickelson Center.
We will continue these demands and stage even more rallies until Sutter provides the help our community needs to heal and rehabilitate.
Sutter has the means to reopen the pool but doesn’t want to because it can make more money by closing it and offering more profitable services in its place.
David J. Canepa serves on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors.
Lindsay Raike is the CEO of Warm Water Wellness, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that was born out of a need to advocate for the reopening of the Mickelson therapy pool. Please visit warmwaterwellness.org for more information, to sign their petition, or to make a donation.