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‘Undeniably dangerous’: 3 patients died days after transferring out of Laguna Honda

Dr. Grant Colfax, Director of Health for the City and County of San Francisco at a Department of Health meeting on Tuesday July 19, 2022 in San Francisco, Calif. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Three patients died days after being transferred out of Laguna Honda Hospital, a 156-year-old nursing home in San Francisco under a federal mandate to close. And patient advocates say the disruption of relocation caused their deaths. 

Critics of the closure—including a group of patient advocates called the Gray Panthers of San Francisco—spoke up at a Tuesday Health Commission meeting about the lethal risks of moving nearly 700 vulnerable patients from the embattled hospital. 

“With the death of at least three recently transferred residents, the current process is clearly faulty and undeniably dangerous,” said Joseph Urban, a healthcare consultant who has a mother-in-law at Laguna Honda.

Urban created a petition asking U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra to stop the forced relocation of patients.

In April, the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services terminated Laguna Honda’s participation in the programs, which provide essential funding for the hospital. In order to recertify for the services in September, according to the mandate from regulators, Laguna must continue relocating its patients in case of total closure. 

Laguna was only recently informed that three patients died after being moved to different nursing facilities. But officials offered little else about the deceased, citing patient privacy laws. 

“I cannot speak to any specifics,” Laguna Honda Chief Medical Officer Wilmie Hathaway said at Tuesday’s hearing. “Once they have been transferred, we no longer have regular updates about them. What I can say, though, is that our residents’ health and safety is our top priority as we implement this mandatory closure plan.” 

Gray Panther member and Laguna Honda physician Teresa Palmer said three deaths out of 35 transferred patients translates to an alarming death rate. With 600 more patients to go, she said that could mean 60 more deaths by the time the closure plan is fully implemented.

“The people of San Francisco do not want you to do this,” she told commissioners and hospital officials. “This is going to put Laguna Honda in a death spiral.” 

Palmer urged the city to stop all discharges. 

Laguna Honda has served as San Francisco's largest skilled nursing facility since 1866, and has been funded by taxpayers. As one of the few facilities of its kind in San Francisco, its possible closure puts hundreds of current and future patients at risk of moving out of a city they’ve called home for years—often decades. 

Advocates and community members say federal regulators terminated the hospital’s funding after the city moved people with mental health and drug issues to the facility largely occupied by elderly wards, resulting in a patient population staff was not trained to handle. 

City officials will further address the Laguna Honda crisis and the issues that resulted in the loss of their federal funding at Thursday’s Government Audit and Oversight Committee meeting, which begins at 10 a.m.