State sets hearing on Holyoke Medical Center’s planned birthing center closure

  • Holyoke Medical Center, Wednesday, June 3, 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/12/2020 6:33:39 PM

HOLYOKE — The state has scheduled a public hearing on Holyoke Medical Center’s proposed closure of its Birthing Center for July 28.

The state Department of Public Health will hold the hearing at 6 p.m. on a moderated phone line because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The dial-in number for that phone line is 888-390-5007, and the access code is 2022446.

Holyoke Medical Center notified the state and other stakeholders May 29 that it intended to permanently close its 13-bed obstetrics unit and 10-bassinet infant nursery by Oct. 1. The hospital had already closed its obstetrical/maternity unit on April 4 so as to house patients from the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home while that facility battled a deadly coronavirus outbreak.

Any time a hospital decides to end an “essential service” as defined by state regulations, it must follow a process laid out by the DPH, which includes a public hearing on the proposed closure at least 60 days prior to the closure date.

After the public hearing, the health department will determine whether it considers those services “necessary for preserving access and health status within the hospital’s service area.” If the DPH finds the service to be necessary, the hospital must submit a plan for ensuring access to those services in its service area. The department can then provide additional written comments, to which the hospital must submit a response.

Beyond that, however, the state has no power to stop a closure or mandate additional conditions from the hospital.

Critics, including the state’s nurses union, have called for the DPH to be given more authority to regulate hospital service closures. The union and several area lawmakers have backed a bill that would instruct the attorney general to seek an injunction to maintain essential services during an expanded notice period, and that would make hospitals ineligible to apply for licensure or expansion for three years after discontinuing a service, unless they restored that service or the DPH approved a modified plan.

Holyoke Medical Center has said it is closing the Birthing Center due to “low utilization for the past several years.” In a 90-day notice of closure filed with the state on June 29, the hospital said the caseload isn’t sufficient for physicians and staff to preserve and develop their professional skills and competencies.

“In addition, without a critical volume, further investments in the Services are financially not feasible,” the notice reads. “A hospital cannot maintain clinically thriving and financially sound obstetrical/maternity and nursery services if few patients choose to use them and, instead, obtain care from other providers.”

Some former employees have said other factors are behind the drop in the number of deliveries at the Birthing Center, the Gazette reported last month. The former employees alleged that hospital administrators had created a hostile work environment, jeopardizing patient care and forcing out veteran employees. Between late 2018 and early 2019, eight of the practice’s 10 midwives had left or been let go.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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