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SF supervisor, Biden administration trade barbs over Laguna Honda

Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco is under federal scrutiny over compliance issues. | Juliana Yamada/The Standard

What began as a visit from the Biden administration to San Francisco has turned into an exchange of criticisms over Laguna Honda’s certification mess. 

Supervisor Hillary Ronen criticized U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra this week over the stop-and-go of relocating patients at the city’s largest skilled nursing facility. Under a federal mandate to close over compliance issues, Laguna Honda Hospital and Rehabilitation Center began transferring out patients. 

Of those, 12 patients have died soon after leaving the facility. San Francisco was fined $36,000 for the transfer-related deaths. 

Ronen backed out of attending the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital Foundation gala on Thursday as a result of the event featuring Becerra at City Hall. California’s former attorney general was also in town to promote capped insulin prices for Medicare and Medicaid patients. 

Supervisor Hillary Ronen | Gabrielle Lurie/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

She said San Francisco “shouldn’t be featuring this man at any event” and that she refuses to attend one “when he has peoples’ lives he’s playing with.”

“He’s gumming up our entire system,” Ronen told The Standard. “We’ve been bending over backwards to address any criticism they have. Don’t punish poor people that don’t have any other options in the interim. He holds us hostage every minute.”

After federal regulators announced in April 2022 that it would stop funding Medicare and Medicaid dollars, they eventually reached a deal to extend the deadline to bring Laguna Honda up to code. 

Laguna Honda’s reprieve was set to end again in February but was not given notice of an extension until the day prior. San Francisco supervisors last week criticized the lack of communication and a heads-up, causing anguish for patients, their families and the staff. 

Laguna Honda is also not allowed to accept new patients until regulators give clearance, clogging up needed space at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. 

Becerra encouraged Ronen to “read the facts.” A report issued in October found slow progress to retrain staff to comply with regulations, including around basic hygienic efforts. 

A person in a wheelchair in Laguna Honda Hospital
Felipe Martinez poses in his room at Laguna Honda Hospital, where he has lived for many years. | Jana Ašenbrennerová for The Standard.

“We are, by law, required to make sure that patients are cared for safely and with the care that they're supposed to have,” Becerra said at a press conference in rare remarks on the matter. “That's outlined very clearly. We have no choice by law but to say that the safety of patients must come first.”

Ronen fired back in a text to The Standard.

“The facts are 12 people died, people are stuck in beds in General Hospital because Laguna can’t admit new patients, sick elderly people are sleeping on the street all as a direct result of Becerra’s failure to lead,” she wrote.

San Francisco representatives, from Mayor London Breed to Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Dianne Feinstein have urged Becerra to stop the forced transfer of patients and to usher in stability. 

San Francisco Mayor London Breed | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Breed’s grandmother, who raised her, was a Laguna Honda patient in the last years of her life. At the gala, Breed also shared that her cousin who was shot by a cop and spent time recovering at Laguna Honda. He needed over 13 surgeries and couldn’t walk for two years. 

“If Laguna Honda hadn’t existed, what would have happened?” Breed said. “I can’t help but think about how important, now more than ever, both of these incredible institutions are protected. I appreciate your willingness to work with us to make sure that we save Laguna Honda,” she directed at Becerra.

Becerra shared concerns of the effects on the skilled nursing facility ecosystem. 

“We should all be concerned if Laguna Honda doesn't meet certification, not just the patients and the families of those patients, but the administrators at Laguna Honda,” Becerra said. “We have to make sure that we're all working together to make sure not only that everyone is following the rules, but that people are getting the care they need. We know that this is a community that is in desperate need of additional facilities and beds where people can go.”

Laguna Honda has until at least May 19 before it potentially has to discharge and transfer patients again.