As residents continue to push for the public reopening of a therapeutic pool, San Mateo County Supervisor David Canepa has requested that the state investigate Sutter Health's use of federal stimulus funding.
In a letter submitted to California Attorney General Rob Bonta, Canepa alleges that the health care provider is misusing the $853 million federal funds it received from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which was passed near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and was meant to keep vital medical resources open to the community.
Sutter's Mack E. Mickelson Center therapy pool is located at the Mills Health Center in San Mateo, and it's the only heated pool in the county that both meets Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements and is designated for seniors, people with chronic pain or disabilities and others pursuing therapeutic care.
The pool initially opened 25 years ago, thanks to $4 million in community donations. Following COVID-19 shutdowns in March 2020, Sutter Health said the pool would remain closed off from public use.
Canepa noted in the letter that there are no nearby replacement facilities available for people who depend on water therapy for a better quality of life, and that the "local community is desperate for the Mickelson therapy pool to reopen."
"For many, the therapy pool was the only way to ease their pain and have a decent quality of life. Losing that facility has caused untold suffering for the very people the CARES Act was passed to protect." said Canepa in the letter, signed earlier this month.
Canepa has previously urged Sutter to reopen the pool with a resolution passed by the county Board of Supervisors in February, and said he has unsuccessfully attempted to set up a meeting with stakeholders numerous times.
He's backed by various local government agencies as well -- the Sequoia Healthcare District and roughly a dozen city councils around the Peninsula have also expressed support via letters and resolutions to reopen the pool.
"Despite strenuous efforts to open a dialogue with Sutter regarding the therapy pool -- including petitions, protests and even a multi-million dollar offer from the Peninsula Health Care District to fully fund repairs, retrofitting and operational costs of the pool until a replacement facility can be built -- local community members have been unable to gain any traction with Sutter Health," Canepa wrote.
Canepa has been closely working with a collective of former pool users, disability advocates and health care workers, who banded together to form a nonprofit called Warm Water Wellness Inc. The group is calling on Sutter to either reopen the facility or return the community donations it received, backed by a petition that garnered almost 5,000 signatures.
Some advocates say the pool helped them avoid acute medical care and relocation to assisted living facilities, while also providing a space for community amongst disabled and older individuals. They argue the pool was meant for the community.
"By closing the pool, not-for-profit Sutter Health sends a strong message that it is not interested in the quality of life of the most vulnerable members of our community," said Lindsay Raike, CEO of Warm Water Wellness.
Raike said the organization hopes Bonta's office will investigate Sutter's use of CARES funds, as the money could have been used to keep the therapy pool open, and if it's meeting the community benefit standard required of a not-for-profit hospital.
"The therapy pool has now been closed for almost two and a half years; the physical and mental health of former users has been detrimentally impacted by lack of access to this vital community resource. For many, the decline in quality of life has been devastating," Raike said in an email statement.
In response to the letter, a representative of Sutter Health said their initial statement still stands: "It is not a community pool and was never publicly funded," as it only received philanthropic donations through a fundraising campaign.
"The continued uncertainty presented by COVID-19, our focus on providing quality acute care services and our ongoing efforts to be good stewards of our resources have led us to close the program," said the Sutter spokesperson.