Tobey Hospital’s Maternity Unit to Close in a Few Weeks

Tobey Hospital in Wareham.

WAREHAM – The maternity unit at Tobey Hospital in Wareham will cease operations in less than three weeks and the Massachusetts Nurses Association is working to make sure similar closures don’t happen in the future.

Southcoast Health announced in August that it would close Tobey’s maternity ward on December 31 while expanding services at St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford.

The plan dedicates the entire third floor at St. Luke’s to coordinated inpatient services for the care of mothers, newborns and children.

The expansion will build upon a recent $14 million investment in St. Luke’s Stoico/FIRSTFED Maternity Center.

Southcoast Health officials said the expanded services in New Bedford will provide patients service less than 20 miles away from Tobey Hospital.

According to Southcoast, Tobey sees 375 births on average each year, a number the organization says is steadily decreasing over the better part of a decade. St. Luke’s averages about 1,500 deliveries per year.

Southcoast Health officials said the closure of the maternity unit at Tobey will ensure the success and sustainability of the hospital, which will be expanding its emergency department with a $25 million investment.

The MNA and staff at Tobey Hospital in Wareham have expressed concerns for Southcoast Health’s plan to close the facility’s maternity unit and feel the local community will be underserved when it comes to maternity care.

The Department of Public Health held a public hearing in late October which drew hundreds of people, almost all in support of keeping the unit open.

The DPH can recommend whether they feel a service is essential for the community, but a closure decision remains solely with the healthcare provider.

“There are some legislative initiatives up on Beacon Hill right now that would address this issue of hospitals being able to close essential services without the Department of Public Health having more say in it,” said Jennifer Johnson, an MNA spokeswoman.”

The MNA has filed legislation to strengthen the state’s law related to hospital closures. An Act Relative to the Closing of Hospital Essential Services is sponsored by Cape and Islands State Senator Julian Cyr (D-Truro) and State Representative Ed Coppinger (D-West Roxbury).

The legislation would extend the official notice period to the DPH in advance of a closure or discontinuation of health services, and require any hospital proposing a closure or discontinuation of health services to provide evidence of having notified and given the opportunity for comment from affected communities before the notification period begins.

The legislation would also instruct the Attorney General to seek an injunction to maintain the essential services for the duration of the notice period.

It would also 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, until the essential health service is restored, or until the DPH is satisfied with a modified plan.

“At this point, folks are saying ‘how do we ever stop this from happening again?’” Johnson said.

Sharon Miksch, a Tobey Hospital RN and chairperson of the MNA bargaining unit, said the looming closure of the maternity 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,” Miksch said. “And, in the end, whole communities will suffer because that gap will never be repaired.”

A candlelight vigil was held Tuesday afternoon at Tobey Hospital to mourn the decision by Southcoast Health to close the maternity unit.

“It was a very solemn event, as we had anticipated,” Johnson said.

The event was attended by dozens of current and retired nurses, community leaders and elected officials, and supporters and activists from social welfare organizations.

The official closure date of the unit is December 31st but the final patients receiving care will likely be gone before that date.

“They won’t be able to admit any expectant mothers in such a close proximity to a date where their care would need to go beyond the 31st,” Johnson said. “The actually last child born there will be ahead of the December 31st date.”

Johnson said it will be a tough time as there is more excitement around the New Year when hospital’s and communities celebrate the first babies born.

“I think we have a really sad situation here where people in the community will be very sad to hear about the last child ever born in Tobey’s maternity unit,” Johnson said.

About Brian Merchant

Brian Merchant grew up in Central Massachusetts and now lives in South Dennis on the Cape. He has been part of the news team in the NewsCenter since the spring of 2014. He studied radio broadcasting at the University of Tennessee.
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