The state Department of Public Health will hold a public hearing on Wednesday, October 23 regarding Southcoast Hospitals Group’s proposed closure of the maternity unit at Tobey Hospital — a proposal that has drawn strong opposition from both current and past patients of the unit, as well as local nurses, obstetricians, midwives, women’s health advocates, and elected officials.
What: DPH public hearing on the proposed closure of Tobey's maternity unit
When: Wednesday October 23 at 6 p.m.
Where: Rosebrook Event Center, 50 Rosebrook Place, Wareham
Southcoast, which also owns and operates St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford and Charlton Memorial Hospital in Fall River, plans to close Tobey’s maternity unit on December 31 of this year. Following that closure, Tobey patients requiring maternity care will be directed to
St. Luke’s Hospital.
Concerned patients and advocates say this decision is misguided and comes with unique risks, especially given that nearly all of the communities that neighbor Tobey are currently without maternity services — primarily because other hospitals have already closed their maternity units, including Morton Hospital in Taunton. This has created what local healthcare advocates are calling a “maternity-care desert for expectant mothers.”
Registered nurse Joyce Hyslip-Ikkela, who has spent 24 years working in Tobey’s maternity unit and who, along with all of her nurse colleagues, is a member of the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA), says that the services Tobey’s maternity unit provides are an essential part of the local healthcare system. “We welcome nearly 400 new babies annually, and we have some of the best birth outcomes in the state thanks to our low-intervention philosophy and approach. We also have valuable, longstanding relationships with highly respected obstetricians and midwives in the area. After the closure, where will our patients go for this level of care?”
Added Sharon Miksch, a Tobey RN and chairperson of the bargaining unit, “Losing this unit will rip open the fabric of our local healthcare safety net. There will be a gap in care, and too many people will fall into that gap: mothers, babies, and families. And, in the end, whole communities will suffer because that gap will never be repaired.”
Tobey’s maternity unit, which is officially known as the Family Centered Unit or the Makepeace Center, is also held in high regard for being part of the “Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative.” This initiative emphasizes rooming in, immediate skin-to-skin contact, and supporting a mother's personal feeding choice with education and instruction. Although St. Luke’s in New Bedford has the same designation, it is really known for its care of high-risk mothers and babies. Additionally, St. Luke’s has been chronically understaffed and would currently struggle to accommodate an influx of new patients from Tobey.
“St. Luke’s and Tobey nurses alike believe that all patients should have access to a range of hospital services that meet their needs. And of all the times a patient could need a hospital, the birth of a child is both a critical and poignant one,” said Liz Labelle, Family Centered Unit (FCU) nurse at St. Luke’s and member of the St. Luke’s MNA Bargaining Committee. “As you can imagine, the closure of an important service like maternity at Tobey, complicated by the already chronic short staffing of nurses at St. Luke’s, will be a huge stressor on our local healthcare system. Southcoast has an obligation to maintain the public trust and meet the needs of its patients; we will do our part by advocating for patients and families through union negotiations, community outreach, and our professional oaths.”
Nurses working in the maternity unit at Brockton Hospital have also recently reported spikes in patient census and, as a result, have had difficulty maintaining safe nurse-staffing levels. Meanwhile, Good Samaritan Hospital has had difficulty retaining obstetricians.
The MNA has been tracking an increase in the closure of maternity and other services across the state and will be actively engaged with the DPH, local community groups, and policymakers to advocate for the continuation of this service. As hospitals have consolidated into massive corporate networks, there has been a move to close local services and force patients into accessing care at larger hospitals farther away — a change that is especially difficult for low-income patients and their families.
The MNA has filed legislation to strengthen the Commonwealth’s law related to hospital closures. An Act Relative to the Closing of Hospital Essential Services (S. 672/H. 1139), sponsored by Senator Julian Cyr and Representative Ed Coppinger will:
- Extend the official notice period to the DPH in advance of a closure or discontinuation of health services.
- Require any hospital proposing closure or discontinuation of health services to provide evidence of having notified and provided the opportunity for comment from affected municipalities before the notification period begins.
- Instruct the Attorney General to seek an injunction to maintain the essential services for the duration of the notice period.
- Prohibit the hospital from eligibility for an application for licensure or expansion for a period of three years from the date the service is discontinued, or until the essential health service is restored, or until such time as the DPH is satisfied with a modified plan.