MNA: Steward Plans to Close DPH-deemed Essential Maternity Services at Morton Hospital Called into Question by DPH, Community Leaders and Caregivers

Published: Apr 03, 2018

TAUNTON, Mass., April 3, 2018 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- As Steward Health Care pushes forward with its plan to close its Obstetrics and Neonatal Care Program at Morton Hospital, the Department of Public Health, as well as other public officials and caregivers continue to raise questions and register opposition to the closure as currently proposed.

In February, in the wake of a public hearing where all sectors of the Greater Taunton Community voiced strong opposition to the closure, the Department of Public Health issued its ruling "that the Obstetrics and Neonatal Care Program provided by the hospital is in fact necessary for preserving access and health status within the Hospital's service area." The DPH finding went on to specify a number of areas of concern should Steward decide to close the service, including how patients will safely receive care at alternative sites, how the hospital will handle emergency deliveries that present to the emergency room, how patients can be safely transported to other facilities, and the training that will be provided for emergency department physicians and nurses to ensure they can handle complicated emergency deliveries in the emergency department.

On March 9, Steward sent DPH a letter that attempted to address the DPH concerns. On March 19, the DPH sent Steward a response, continuing to question Steward's plan to meet these concerns, and seeking more information before allowing any closure of services. Last week, Steward responded to DPH once again (for copies of this correspondence, email dschildmeier@mnarn.org).

While we await the DPH's response to the latest Steward letter, a number of community leaders and advocates continue to condemn the effort. According to State Senator Marc Pacheco (D-Taunton) "The alternative strategies they list do not result in safe treatment for our mothers and children. It increases the likelihood that we will lose lives. It increases the time it takes for women to reach an OB-GYN. In many births, minutes make the all the difference between success and tragedy. This cannot stand."

Eric Ruby, M.D., a local pediatrician who has practiced in Taunton since 1977 echoed Sen. Pacheco's concerns. "Medical care needs to be about people not profits," Ruby said. "Recent medical research confirms that cutting theses services will result in poorer outcomes for patients. Labor and delivery, maternity and nursery services at Morton hospital are essential services that should never be closed in a community hospital."

Kathleen Kohls, OB/GYN, MD of Taunton has also written to DPH calling into question every aspect of the Steward closure plan, "A simple google search shows that maternal morbidity and mortality rates are on the rise in the United States, unlike other industrialized nations in the world. The research reveals the reasons for this include less access to obstetric care and greater distance from obstetric care. What Steward is doing by closing the maternity department at Morton is exactly that…It is taking a high risk group of individuals in this community and stripping them of access to close, convenient obstetrical care. In essence, Steward is making Morton a rural hospital," said Kohls.

She concludes her letter to DPH by calling into question the accuracy of Steward's assertions justifying the closure. "I strongly urge you to investigate further into the actual motivation of this closure. If Steward Health Care is being asked by DPH to submit a plan for 'assuring patient access to services follow the (Maternity) Program closure,' shouldn't they respond with actual, relevant facts and not half-truths and assumptions?"

Taunton Mayor Thomas C. Hoye, Jr., said, "I'm glad that DPH is taking a long hard look at this to ensure adequate patient safety, because at the end of the day this is about providing woman's health services to and underserved population."

According to Jacqui Fitts, a nurse in the Morton Hospital maternity unit and chair of the Massachusetts Nurses Association local bargaining unit at the hospital, who also lived through the closure of the hospital's pediatric unit a few years back, "We went through this same process with Steward and DPH when they closed the pediatric unit, where DPH found that service to be an essential service that shouldn't close. Steward wrote similar letters to DPH detailing alternative plans as to how they would protect, treat and transfer pediatric patients at Morton. They kept none of those promises. We can't afford to allow Steward to continue to renege on its commitments to our patients and our community and we can only hope that DPH and the state can find a way to hold Steward accountable to fulfilling its mission of providing comprehensive care to the community it serves."

The MNA, which has filed legislation to provide DPH with greater authority to prevent the ultimate loss of this service, is hoping the legislature will act soon to provide DPH with the ability to protect this and other essential services. State Senator Marc Pacheco, (D Taunton), along with other area legislators are aggressively working to strengthen the law governing the closing of essential services.

"It makes little sense if the Department of Public Health, the state agency tasked with protecting access to needed care for communities, can make a decision that a service is needed to protect that community; yet lacks the ability to ensure hospitals they license maintain that service," Fitts said. "Corporations like Steward, who profit from their license from the state to provide needed public health services must be held accountable for delivering those services, particularly when the lives of mothers and newborns are at stake."

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Founded in 1903, the Massachusetts Nurses Association is the largest union of registered nurses in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Its 23,000 members advance the nursing profession by fostering high standards of nursing practice, promoting the economic and general welfare of nurses in the workplace, projecting a positive and realistic view of nursing, and by lobbying the Legislature and regulatory agencies on health care issues affecting nurses and the public.

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