The Department of Public Health this morning issued its findings regarding Southcoast Hospitals Group’s decision to close its maternity unit at Tobey Hospital, a renowned unit that is home to some of the best birth outcomes in the state of Massachusetts. The DPH finds that this unit provides an essential service that is “necessary for preserving access and health status within the Hospital’s service area.” (Full DPH letter available here).
The DPH’s findings are based, in part, on the countless testimonials that were offered at the Oct. 23 public hearing held by the state agency about the proposed closure. At that packed hearing, dozens of former patients, expectant mothers, providers, and community members offered personal stories about the exceptional care the unit offers mothers, babies, and families, as well as what an integral part of the local community the unit has become.
“We are grateful that the DPH’s findings support the argument we have been making all along,” said Joyce Hyslip-Ikkella, a Tobey maternity nurse for 24 years. “Tobey’s maternity unit offers nationally-recognized care to hundreds of mothers and babies annually, and that level of care is essential to the health and wellbeing of area moms, babies, and the local community overall.”
“It’s our hope that Southcoast will take these findings seriously and will opt to keep the unit open and intact,” added Sharon Miksch, a Tobey RN and chairperson of the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA) bargaining unit at the hospital. “It’s an irreplaceable service, and instead of closing it Southcoast should showcase it as a model for other hospitals.”
Southcoast now has 15 business days to respond to a number of requests made by the DPH in its letter. These include:
- Information on its plan to use the maternity unit at St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford as Tobey’s replacement unit.
- Information on travel times and transportation needs/options for patients who will instead need to travel to St. Luke’s.
- Protocols specific to current patients’ care plans following the Tobey closure, as well as how future patients in Tobey’s service area will obtain maternity-care services.
- Information about where and how both pre-natal care services and post-partem services, such as lactation counseling, will be offered to the community.
- In addition, Southcoast must address staff training and competency so that patients requiring urgent maternity care, and who present at Tobey, have access to competent, qualified staff at all times.
Southcoast, which also owns and operates both St. Luke’s Hospital 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 — an 18-mile trek from Tobey.
Concerned patients and advocates say this decision is misguided and comes with unique risks, especially given that nearly all 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.”
Southcoast Hospitals Group is not legally obligated to follow DPH’s “essential services” decision and is still allowed to close the maternity unit — a pattern that has played out in dozens of other hospitals across the Commonwealth in the last ten years. As such, 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.