Department of Public Health to Hold Public Hearing Feb. 16 On the Proposed Closure of the Maternity Unit at Steward Morton Hospital in Taunton
Opponents to the Closing Will Present Testimony Detailing the Devastating Impact the Loss of this Service Will Have on the Vulnerable Mothers and Newborns in Greater Taunton
What: Department of Public Health – Public Hearing
When: Friday, Feb. 16 at 4 p.m.
Where: Holiday Inn, 700 Myles-Standish Blvd., Taunton MA
Who: Former patients, local, physicians, nurses, local community leaders and elected
officials scheduled to speak at the hearing
Taunton, Mass – The Department of Public Health will hold a public hearing on Feb. 16 concerning a highly controversial plan by Steward Health Care to close its Maternity and Obstetrical Service, a popular service that has existed at the Taunton-based community hospital for 100 years. The public hearing is part of the legal process Steward is required to go through prior to closing the unit, which is designed to determine if this is an essential service for patients in the community. The proposed closing has been met with overwhelming community opposition by parents, former patients, local clergy, health care advocates, clinicians, and elected officials. Opponents to the closing believe the loss of this service will have a devastating impact on the most vulnerable mothers and newborns in the community who rely on this service for quality care close to home.
On Friday, January 19, Steward Health Care filed the required written notice with the Department of Public Health notifying them of their plan to permanently close the service. Under state law, the hospital must provide at least a 90 day notice of their intent to close a service, subject to review by the DPH.
The announcement sparked an immediate response from all sectors of the Taunton Community, spearheaded by the Greater Taunton Clergy Association and State Senator Marc Pacheco, who held a Candlelight Vigil and March to the Hospital on Jan. 26 and a Community Forum on Jan. 29.
In announcing the events, the Clergy Association stated, “they have planned these events, with other partners in the community, in hopes of reversing this decision and maintaining maternity services at Morton Hospital. The clergy have a great moral and ethical concern for women in the greater Taunton area who need the services of the maternity ward. There is special concern for low income women, who may not have adequate transportation to hospitals outside of the Taunton area. We believe that Morton Hospital, as a community medical provider, must maintain the services needed by pregnant women and their newborn children”
In an open letter to the community announcing the community forum on Jan. 29, Senator Pacheco stated, “I organized this meeting to bring together stakeholders – residents, nurses, doctors, executive leadership, elected officials, clergy members, labor leaders, business leaders, etc. and to allow an opportunity for people all across Southeastern Massachusetts to speak out against this public health crisis.”
In addition to Senator Pacheco, a number of other local officials have come out in opposition to the closing, including the Mayor of Taunton and the City Council, which took a unanimous vote to oppose the closing on November 21. In a letter to Steward Morton Hospital’s President, the officials went on record “expressing our support of Morton Hospital continuing to keep the labor and delivery department open for the citizens in the area. This department has been a fixture of our community, welcoming endless new babies into the world for as long as anyone can remember. It would be devastating to lose such an important part of Morton Hospital.”
“Maternity services are critical to our community,” said HollyAnn Shea, an RN who works in maternity at Morton Hospital. “Taunton has been hit hard by the opioid epidemic, and has the highest rate of children born to addicted mothers. Many of our patients also struggle financially and either take cabs or walk to the hospital. Sending them outside of our community to receive care is a huge disservice to patients and their families.
Shea’s concern about the loss of maternity care for mothers and newborns struggling with opioid addiction was echoed earlier this year, when the Taunton Opioid and Substance Use Task Force cast a unanimous vote to oppose the closure of the unit.
Background on the Closure
Earlier this fall, Steward temporarily closed its maternity unit because of its alleged inability to settle a dispute with the Massachusetts General Physicians Organization. Since then, Steward has proposed shutting down the unit permanently. It is diverting Morton maternity patients to Good Samaritan Medical Center in Brockton, also a Steward facility, which is already at capacity and lacks the staff needed to compensate for the loss of services at Morton Hospital.
There is no public transportation from Taunton to Brockton and many of the patients seen at Morton have serious hardships. Morton Hospital also has the highest rate of drug-addicted newborn babies, according to a report by the Health Policy Commission, at 75.2 out of every 1,000 live births. That compares to 65.5 per 1,000 at the next highest at Charlton Memorial Hospital and 17.6 per 1,000 at Good Samaritan, the second lowest rate.
In an initial response to the proposed closure, Sen. Pacheco sent a letter to Attorney General Maura Healey on December 1 asking her to look into whether Steward is living up to the commitments it made “to the public health of our community” when it purchased Morton in 2011. When Steward purchased Morton Hospital it made a commitment to keep all services open. The company already broke that promise once when it previously closed Morton’s pediatric unit.
Steward’s rationale for the closure is their claim that they cannot secure a viable contract with pediatric physicians to provide necessary coverage to keep the unit open. However, the Massachusetts Nurses Association, in communication with a number of physicians in the community, has learned that there are a number of pediatricians who are willing to support the service to keep it open, yet Steward has failed to respond to their overtures.