Saanen Hospital served the district of Saanenland in the Bernese Oberland for more than a century until it closed in 2012. Two years on, the main buildings lie idle and a sense of injustice still prevails in the region.
Doris’s Kaffestube, a café in the heart of Saanen village, is a meeting point most days for a group of old friends who take a pre-lunch drink together. When the subject of the hospital is brought up, the jolly mood turns to indignation.
“It’s a disgrace,” one customer complained. “I am really angry because the way things have developed is not acceptable for the region.”
She praised the quality of care she had received in the hospital over the years. Almost everyone had fond memories of the hospital. One man recalled having his appendix taken out as a ten-year-old child. “You cannot imagine better care,” he said.
Now there are fears that it might be difficult to get to a hospital in time in the event of a medical emergency.
“The hospital gave us a sense of security,” one older woman said quietly.
Saanen hospital was built the same year as the first ski lift in the area – 1905 – and also served the unlucky tourists who had accidents on the slopes of nearby ski resorts, such as Gstaad and Saanenmöser. In high season, the population swells from 10,000 to 30,000.
Saanenland lost out in a battle for survival between its hospital and the one in Zweisimmen, 17 kilometres away in the next valley. Both hospitals were on the small side, with ageing premises and falling patient numbers. The first idea was to merge the two on a greenfield site in a location half way between the two villages.
When that plan ran into the ground, someone had to give in, Armando Chissalé of Saanan commune explained. “The hospital was running with a large deficit and patients had already started to take their business elsewhere.”
Ultimately canton Bern was the decision-maker. Saanen and Zweisimmen hospitals belonged to Spital STS AG, one of the regional societies set up and owned by Bern in the early 2000s as part of a restructuring process for regional hospitals.
The disillusionment is particularly strongly felt about the maternity unit.
Traditionally, almost all the children of Saanenland were born in Saanen hospital. Now Zweisimmen, although expanding other departments, plans to close its maternity unit and expectant mothers will have to travel to Thun to give birth in future.
“You try driving from Gstieg or Lauenen to Thun with a woman in labour. It will take an hour and a quarter to get there. Anyone can figure out what could happen,” one local woman said, shaking her head in consternation.