Holyoke City Council condemns Birthing Center closure, calls for answers

  • Holyoke City Council conducts its virtual meeting on Tuesday, June 16, 2020. SCREENSHOT/HOLYOKE MEDIA

  • Holyoke Medical Center is shown earlier this month. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

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

Staff Writer
Published: 6/17/2020 3:37:55 PM

HOLYOKE — When the Department of Public Health began to investigate Holyoke’s highest-in-the-state infant mortality rate in the 1980s, Gladys Lebron-Martinez worked for DPH conducting field interviews with city mothers whose babies had died.

But it wasn’t until the Gazette contacted the Ward 1 city councilor on June 5 that she learned Holyoke Medical Center planned to close its Birthing Center — a place where for two decades the midwifery practice born out of the Holyoke Infant Mortality Task Force helped women deliver their babies.

“It took me by surprise,” Lebron-Martinez, whose grandchildren were born at the Birthing Center, said Wednesday. She said she was immediately brought back to the years when infant mortality was a crisis in the city. “It just gave me flashbacks.”

Lebron-Martinez wasn’t the only city councilor upset with the proposed closure of the Birthing Center and Holyoke Medical Center’s communication about its decision. At Wednesday night’s meeting of the City Council, several councilors voiced frustration with HMC leadership over the lack of notice given to the Council. The body took up an order condemning the closure and calling for HMC administrators, as well as former Birthing Center employees, to testify before the City Council.

“They called me 10 minutes — once again, 10 minutes — before their Zoom meeting, and said, ‘Would you like to join in?’” recalled Council President Todd McGee during Tuesday night’s meeting. “I didn’t get that message because I was working … Very disappointing on how they approached it, as well as what they did.”

HMC President and CEO Spiros Hatiras and hospital spokesperson Rebecca MacGregor have not responded to recent interview requests from the Gazette to discuss the closure.

On May 29, Hatiras notified staff and the state that the hospital intended to permanently close its 13-bed obstetrics unit and 10-bassinet infant nursery.

In his email to staff, Hatiras said maternity services lost an estimated $3-$4 million annually and that growing losses could not be sustained without risking the entire hospital. He added that the number of deliveries at the Birthing Center was in decline, citing the lack of a neonatal intensive care unit as a reason parents choose to give birth elsewhere.

However, in an investigation published by the Gazette, five former employees alleged that the number of deliveries dropped after hospital administrators created a hostile work environment, jeopardizing patient care and forcing out many longtime employees. Those concerns were echoed in a Gazette guest column written by Vanessa Ross, a former nurse midwife at the hospital, and signed by 27 former midwives, nurses, staff and physicians.

At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Lebron-Martinez filed an order requesting HMC leadership to speak before the Council. At the suggestion of Ward 2 Councilor Terrence Murphy, the Council added amendments to the order condemning the closure and calling for the Birthing Center’s “caregivers and midwives” to also testify. The order was sent to the Council’s Development and Governmental Relations Committee, which does not yet have its next meeting scheduled.

“We’ll get one set up,” said Ward 3 Councilor David Bartley, that committee’s chair. “We’ll expedite it.”

At-large Councilors Howard Greaney and Michael Sullivan also expressed disappointment about the proposed closure. Greaney said that the City Council has been “very, very, very supportive” to HMC over the years”

“We need to go on record as objecting as a Holyoke City Council to such a move — and the way that they did it — very strongly,” Greaney said of HMC’s decision.

As for Lebron-Martinez, she said she did eventually speak to Hatiras, who she said assured her that HMC patients would still be able to receive prenatal care. But she said patients would still have to deliver elsewhere. She said she’s disheartened that the hospital didn’t consult the community before making the decision to close the Birthing Center.

Lebron-Martinez pointed out that the closure actually occurred at the beginning of April, when HMC announced it was “temporarily” closing the Birthing Center in order to house patients from the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home as that facility faced a massive outbreak of COVID-19.

“I’m really concerned,” Lebron-Martinez said at the City Council meeting, noting that the news comes amid a pandemic and at the same time that Providence Behavioral Health Hospital plans to close 74 inpatient psychiatric beds in the city. “Even though it’s not our role to intervene in that, I think we deserve an answer to what is going to happen next.”

Lebron-Martinez told the Gazette that she understands the decision is about revenue, and that Holyoke Medical Center is not a big hospital. But she said she is worried that high infant mortality rates could return to Holyoke if sufficient care is not accessible to city residents.

“It’s all about revenue,” she said. “But I think the value of revenue versus the health care of people has to be revisited.”

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

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