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Westerly — A trio of officials involved in bringing new, financially stable ownership to The Westerly Hospital tried to convince a skeptical audience Thursday that eliminating maternity services at the hospital is a painful but necessary step.
“The reality is the labor and delivery program at Westerly Hospital is not sustainable, due to medical economics and demographics,” said Dr. Christopher Lehrach, chief transformation officer/interim operations, told an audience of about 150 people gathered at the middle school for a community forum on the hospital.
The number of births annually, he said, has declined from about 500 per year 15 years ago to about 300 now — less than one per day — and recruiting and paying new obstetricians to provide the round-the-clock coverage necessary has proved to be next to impossible. The two remaining obstetricians are both more than 60 years old and have committed to staying only through June 1.
Lehrach was joined by attorney Mark Russo, the court-appointed special master for the hospital when it entered receivership in December 2011, and Town Manager Steven Hartford, chairman of the Westerly Hospital Area Residents Committee, in presenting an update for the community of the progress being made toward acquisition of Westerly Hospital by Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London.
Russo began the meeting by noting that while the sale would not be completed by Jan. 31 as originally anticipated, he is hopeful that hearings with state regulators who must approve the sale will be scheduled for early February. Most of the information and questions that followed, however, focused on the fate of maternity services.
Before the forum began, about 40 parents, nurses and others gathered in frigid temperatures outside the school to show support for the maternity services.
“I was born there, as were my 10 children,” said Rob Gouvin of Hopkinton, as others in the gathering held candles or milled around a sign that read, “Westerly Needs Babies.” “It’s a family-like atmosphere there, in my hometown.”
Among the group were six employees from L+M and officials from the union that represents L+M’s nurses, technical workers and maintenance staff.
“We have to be supportive our sister nurses,” said Lisa Cassel-Patrick, a labor and delivery nurse at L+M.
Union officials and the L+M employees said they were concerned about the loss of jobs that could result from closing the maternity unit at Westerly, as well as the impact on access to care for the Westerly community. A flier distributed by the union was critical of L+M for making decisions that it said put its business interests ahead of the interests of the community.
At the forum, audience members also questioned whether it was right to reduce maternity care to a matter of dollars and cents.
“This is about health care and about mothers and children,” said Ben Bowne, who brought his 6-month-old daughter, Elise, with him when he stepped to the microphone. “This shouldn’t be about economics.”
After the applause quieted, Lehrach again defended the decision.
“We have to talk about economics,” he said. “We’ve got to have a positive margin. If we have no margin, we have no mission. This is a difficult environment and we have to make difficult choices.”
He added that the hospital didn’t go into receivership because of quality of care issues but “because it fell down on the financial side.”
Hartford said the residents’ committee is also “very disappointed” in the decision to eliminate maternity services and tried unsuccessfully to come up with a solution. But the elimination of maternity services doesn’t mean all women’s care services are being lost.
“L+M has pledged to maintain prenatal and postpartum and gynecological care, and intends to recruit an obstetrician and nurse-midwife to provide on-site, on-call coverage and a (part-time) office presence in Westerly,” Hartford said.
He urged the community to support the sale to L+M through the upcoming hearings with state regulators, arguing that the sooner the hospital can become stable, the better chance it has of maintaining staff and services long-term.
“The swift closure of the deal with L+M is critical,” Hartford said. “We need to get through this period of uncertainty.”