Wednesday, May 29, 2024
HomeHealthcareDefending Mothers and Babies' Access to Local Care

Defending Mothers and Babies’ Access to Local Care

Communities across Connecticut stripped of labor and delivery services in their regional hospitals have not received long-overdue legislative or regulatory remedies. The failure to hold the health network chains that gutted their care accountable has led members of AFT Connecticut-affiliated local unions to mobilize patient advocates in collective action. In a recently published commentary, Natchaug Hospital Unions United Vice President leader Brenda Buchbinder (speaking, in photo above) denounced the regulators “complicit in denying our right to childbirth in local and safe facilities:”

National coverage of the state-by-state campaign to outlaw or to cripple access to abortion has inspired Connecticut legislators to legally protect a woman’s right to choose. Connecticut stands as a progressive state where the mother’s life is vital to be saved.

Our legislators have opted to preserve a woman’s right to have safety and protection in making her difficult decision to end a pregnancy. Women and families in Connecticut breathed a sigh of relief that our government worked hard to ensure a safe haven for women in need. Some reproductive rights appear to be politically addressed and able to be saved. But others are under corporate jurisdiction and are unprotected and more likely to be on a chopping block.

Certificate-of-need (CON) filings and hearings by the Office of Health Strategy (OHS) followed by the corporate appeal process have allowed closures of safe and local maternity wards with a full service internal care unit (ICU). The government protection that abortion has in Connecticut is not afforded to any woman who wants to carry her pregnancy to full term and deliver a healthy baby safely and close to home.

Click here for Buchbinder’s previous opinion piece on her community’s struggle to restore its terminated maternity care.

Newly created maternity deserts – created by allowing the closing of labor and delivery units and ICUs – force women to drive great distances on local roads while in labor, or to visit the emergency department to deliver, or to give birth in a car or an ambulance on the side of the road. Their fate is limited to birthing care that has been outsourced to facilities 30-40 minutes away. This forced ride of peril puts undue hardship on women and their babies.

Emergency room births do not permit the use of progressive care units for rest and to confirm a simple birth allowing mother and child to go home together the same day. The birthing center model speaks to about the 80% of all births that meet that condition.

Emergency room births force all births to be outsourced, whether simple or complicated. Women with newborns must endure the 30-40 minute ride – sometimes down back roads – to a corporate-preferred facility. Proprietary health chains have defined all births as complicated and in need of transport away from family and community for better and safer care. This corporate-decided plan does not reduce the risks as the maternal health law passed in 2023 would.

Click here for press reporting last year on the governor’s signature of the statute into law.

Currently our statewide caesarean (C-)section rate is 35.4% and our postpartum depression rates are between 12% and 20%. Birthing centers that have local ICUs and maternity units report C-section rates reduced to 10-15%. Lowered stress levels for childbirth local and safety factor into a lower postpartum rate as well.

We watched with hope last year as Governor Ned Lamont introduced the maternal health bill, and our Connecticut legislature moved rapidly to enact it into law, touting birthing centers as the answer to maternity deserts. Birthing centers safeguarded by our maternal health law are not a feasible option to former community hospitals whose ICUs and maternity units have been corporately outsourced far away.

Safety guidelines for birthing centers require a local and safe hospital-based ICU and maternity unit within 10-20 minutes. Corporate closures by Nuvance Health at Sharon Hospital, Trinity Health of New England at Johnson Memorial Hospital, and Hartford HealthCare at Windham Community Memorial Hospital (WCMH) have all outsourced or are filing to outsource ICUs and maternity units to regional centers 30 minutes or more away.

The Office of Health Strategy and Hartford HealthCare shook hands last December in their final decision to permanently close our 87-year-old Windham maternity service and leave the ICU closed as it has been for eight years. Our regulatory OHS decided to opt for a feasibility study for a Windham Birthing Center, to be conducted by an independent entity selected by Hartford HealthCare (HHC). The agency entrusted the corporation who did the closures to see about a freestanding birthing center to replace core services they outsourced.

Click here for reporting on regulatory approval for permanently shuttering WCMH’s labor and delivery services.

In addition, the OHS/HHC pact allowed the dropping of the majority of public health benchmarks not met in the closures, tipping the health equity scale to corporate designs rather than public health bottom lines. Unlike Connecticut’s legal protection of safe and local abortion, there are no public health bottom lines to protect local and safe childbirth.

Our Windham United to Save Our Healthcare (WUSH) coalition has submitted thousands of community petitions to restore the WCMH maternity unit and ICU, has given hours of oral testimonies and has submitted written testimonials opposing the closing of maternity services. In response, OHS staff made a sound public health decision to deny the closure due to unmet public health benchmarks. No state order was issued to require services to continue while the company appealed the decision.

Attorney General (AG) William Tong wrote a supportive letter on Nov. 8, 2021, reminding the corporation and the regulatory agency to study the impact of the closures and to not continue the closures without knowing the public health outcomes. Four neighboring towns issued letters of support: Windham, Mansfield, Ashford and Coventry. Connecticut has an infant mortality review but has not determined the impact corporate regionalization of childbirth has had. We are left with corporate soundbites that childbirth in a local hospital “is no longer safe care and no longer quality care.” The drop in childbirth numbers and specialist providers are due to corporate moves to invest in regional centers and reduce vital hospitals to limited ambulatory facilities.

Click here for the AG’s letter urging caution before approving WCMH’s maternity ward closure.

Windham consists of over 50% women and families of color. Many do not have cars, have state health insurance or no insurance, and need families nearby to address stress and health during childbirth. WUSH and our coalition of 13 community groups have been on the radio and at the State Capitol steps to keep our voices heard.

Connecticut public health and regulatory agencies, you have saved women’s rights for abortion but have been complicit in denying our right to childbirth in local and safe facilities.

Our short session of the 2024 Connecticut General Assembly has no bill to address this. Our governor, the Department of Public Health (DPH), and legislative and regulatory officials have silently endorsed this dire breakdown in public health and safety for women in childbirth.

Click here for reporting on maternal care advocates’ efforts that quotes our federation’s vice president.

Wake up, Connecticut legislators and regulatory agencies. You have not done your job to protect the full reproductive rights for women and families and ensure public health guidelines for safe and accessible childbirth. Abortion has been saved, but childbirth has not.

Corporate profits and consolidation have reduced our access to local and safe childbirth. Mega healthcare giants continue to make distressed communities and maternity deserts the norm. The maternal health law is too late to help our gutted hospitals.

Our reproductive rights in Connecticut are not protected fully.

Click here for Buchbinder’s original published commentary in CT Viewpoints.

Matt O'Connor
Matt O'Connor
Communications Coordinator for AFT Connecticut, a labor federation of over 30,000 hard-working women and men in the Nutmeg State.

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