Another Massachusetts birthing center is slated to shut down this fall, but community leaders are hoping they can reverse the decision.

Last week, UMass Memorial Health announced it will close the labor and delivery unit at HealthAlliance-Clinton Hospital at its Leominster campus. The news brought major worries for the many vulnerable residents of the twin Gateway Cities of Leominster and Fitchburg.

“At a time where we already know that there's disparities in maternal mortality between families of color and white families, that the folks who are not going to have access to choose other hospital care systems, there’s going to be more harm to families shouldering too much of a burden already,” said state Rep. Natalie Higgins, who represents Leominster and was born at the hospital 34 years ago.

Higgins said closing the maternity unit will devastate the community because the next nearest hospitals are in Worcester and Hayward Hospital in Gardner, a 30-minute drive away. Higgins said that creates a huge gap in services for pregnant people.

“It's not just like the ability to hop in a car and get to another community, taking a bus, not having access to a reliable vehicle. This is going to put folks in a dangerous situation,” she said.

About 500 births occured at the Leominister Hospital last year, according to Higgins.

Steve Roach, president of the UMass Memorial Health Alliance-Clinton Hospital, cited industry-wide workforce shortages in maintaining a maternity inpatient unit and a declining number of births in North Central Massachusetts as the reasons for the closure.

“This was an especially difficult decision for our health system, as our compassionate caregivers have helped thousands of parents and families navigate the birthing journey and welcome new loved ones into their lives for so many decades,” he said in a statement.

If UMass Memorial’s plan gets approved by state regulators, its labor and delivery unit will close on Sept. 22.

A map published by the Massachusetts Nurses Association shows a maternity service desert in the state. In the last decade, the nurses union counts the permanent closure of nine birth units, most recently at Beverly Hospital’s North Shore Birth Center last October.

State Rep. Megan Kilcoyne, whose district includes Clinton, said the closures make it much more difficult to navigate access to care — and she’s concerned about a national trend where maternal death rates are getting worse.

“Whether we're talking about North Central or other parts of the commonwealth, we don't want to see Massachusetts follow that trend,” Kilcoyne said. “And if we continue to see these deserts grow or become more pronounced, we're going to see negative outcomes when it comes to maternal health care locally. And I just don't think that's acceptable.”

State Sen. John Cronin of Lunenburg called the surprise announcement by UMass Memorial a “failure in leadership.”

“Instead of engaging leaders and stakeholders in good faith to stabilize and address challenges to the Labor & Delivery unit,” Cronin said in a written statement, “[UMass Memorial CEO] Dr. Eric Dickson chose the Friday of Memorial Day weekend to pull the rug out from under expecting families—and shutter a unit that has played an essential role to thousands of families in North Central. That’s a breach of public trust.“

Cronin said the state Legislature gave tens of millions of dollars to the UMass Memorial system in the last six months alone to stabilize and maintain essential health care services in the community.

Worsening maternal health care prompted Massachusetts Rep. Katherine Clark to co-sponsor the BABIES Act at the federal level. According to the American Association of Birth Centers, “the legislation aims to help reduce racial disparities with federally funded freestanding birth centers that will increase access to midwifery care in birth centers.”

“We have seen clear evidence that birth centers and midwifery care have positive outcomes for mothers and babies, but these services are underfunded, and in some rural areas, nonexistent,” Clark said in a statement when she first proposed the legislation in 2021.

Both Higgins and Kilcoyne said the workforce shortage is a “fixable” problem.

State, local and federal officials attended a rally Tuesday evening outside the Leominster campus to raise interest in fighting the closure.

The Department of Public Health is required to hold a hearing at least 60 days before the planned closure to give the public an opportunity to voice any concerns. However, the fight to stop previous closures of other units in 2018 failed.

Still, Higgins remains optimistic.

“I can't imagine having a community hospital in twin Gateway Cities not having a labor and delivery unit,” she said. “I really hope that the hospital administration will reconsider.”


Original story HERE.