Last summer, executives at Windham Hospital in Willimantic, Conn., announced that it would seek approval from the state to end labor and delivery services at the facility, citing that the request for closure was the result of years of declining births and recruitment challenges.
Brenda Buchbinder, a member of Natchaug Hospital Unions United, disagrees. The hospital claims that women are choosing to have their babies at other hospitals in the region, she says, but “they didn’t choose to go elsewhere. Our choices were taken from us.
“The hospital has been a beacon of safety and health and care, serving a diverse community for 88 years,” says Buchbinder, noting that the hospital had created the conditions that made it unable to recruit additional providers and staff to continue the service.
Buchbinder and other community activists, including AFT Connecticut, came together to form a grassroots coalition—Windham United to Save Our Healthcare—to protest the decision to end the service by Hartford HealthCare, the multibillion-dollar health system that owns Windham Hospital.
In 2010, the births at Windham and at Backus Hospital, which is 17 miles away, were equivalent, says Buchbinder. At the time, Windham had an ICU and an obstetrician-gynecologist on staff. It didn’t have a neonatal intensive care unit, but it did have an ICU that could manage high-risk mothers and babies.
But things changed in 2015, when Hartford HealthCare came to the community and presented a financial-deficit rationale for closing the ICU at Windham, says Buchbinder. “They kept saying, ‘We’re in the hole here. We are not making money, and we have to downsize and take away the ICU.’ I don’t know how we went from a feasible hospital to losing money under their stewardship.”
Hartford HealthCare has assured residents that the system will provide transportation to childbirth services at Backus Hospital, but shutting down childbirth services makes things worse for parents and children. The health of women and babies depends on a continuity of care before, during and after birth. Pregnancy in rural areas is already challenging. Rural areas have higher pregnancy-related hospitalizations, lower birth weights, pre-term births, and infant mortality. As of 2017, Windham County had the third-highest infant mortality rate in the state. Studies have found that there are higher out-of-hospital and pre-term birth rates after hospital-based childbirth services are shut down in rural counties.
“They are saying they can’t afford to keep a maternity unit open. Yet, they are making all this money from diverting our services,” says Buchbinder.
Windham has notified the State Department of Public Health that it will soon file a public notice and subsequently a certificate-of-need application with the Office of Health Strategy requesting approval to officially close the service. The certificate-of-need hearing is scheduled for late August or early September. It gives the coalition time to gather signatures and collect stories from the community.
Every Friday, coalition members rally in the community and collect signatures, hoping to save the birthing center. “We’re getting about 100 signatures a week to give to the Office of Health Strategy,” says Buchbinder. “I want them to see that people are not indifferent to this or don’t care. I’ve been encountering community members who react with tears and disbelief, asking me how this could happen.”
Leah Ralls, president of the local NAACP, joined the coalition to educate the community and get people involved in the fight. “Many in the community are shocked, devastated and scared. They want their families by their side; we want a neonatal unit here,” says Ralls. “When you have a lot of people who share the same concerns, you want to come together on one accord and address the issue as a collective.”
According to Ralls, closing the birthing center is an act of depleting healthcare services in an already economically deprived community. Ralls wonders aloud why Hartford HealthCare didn’t put more money into improving the hospital when they took it over years ago. “They are creating a healthcare desert, and we have lost a lot of career nurses,” she says.
“It feels like there is a plan. I want to think that they would not put finances over healthcare, but their decisions are not reflective of a community hospital,” she says. “They have taken the community out of the hospital.”