BOSTON (SHNS) – UMass Memorial Medical Center “failed miserably” in its plan to maintain access to maternal care after the proposed closure of a Leominster birthing center, the city’s mayor contended Tuesday in a plea for state regulators to take a more forceful approach.
Leominster Mayor Dean Mazzarella asked the Department of Public Health, where officials have said they do not have authority to force a facility to remain open, to reject UMass Memorial’s controversial plan for mitigating patient impacts from the shutdown.
Because DPH deemed the Leominster maternity ward an “essential service,” the health care system was required to submit a plan outlining how patients could continue to access services without the facility.
Mazzarella said the 17-page document UMass Memorial produced “confirm[s] what we in North Worcester County already knew — that very little thought and planning went in to this decision that effects [sic] the lives of the most vulnerable in our region.”
“The regulations don’t call for a plan to submit a plan. The regulations call for a comprehensive plan on how expectant mothers are going to access services from prenatal through postpartum care in our region,” Mazzarella said in a statement. “The Hospital failed miserably at the task.”
“We hope the Department of Public Health will stand behind their regulations and reject this plan,” he added.
Hospital officials proposed closing the maternity inpatient unit effective Sept. 22, 2023. They have pointed to staffing shortages as a major factor behind their decision, warning that “financial support alone is not enough” to keep the site open given current patient demand.
The hospital saw an average of two births per day in 2017, and that has since dropped to 1.3 births per day on average through most of fiscal year 2023, UMass Memorial wrote in its closure plan.
UMass Memorial pointed to four other hospitals in the area — UMass Memorial’s primary Worcester campus, Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Heywood Hospital in Gardner, and Emerson Hospital in Concord — that are equipped to absorb patients from the Leominster facility.
Operators of the HealthAlliance-Clinton facility in Leominster said they plan to contract with the Montachusett Regional Transit Authority to provide non-emergency medical transportation to Worcester for “birthing people identified with transportation barriers.” To illustrate the circumstances that patients will face, the closure plan listed miles and estimated travel times from different parts of the region to the four alternate sites, based on data from mapquest.com.
“I was truly shocked to see the Hospital’s lack of effort,” Mazzarella said. “Using MapQuest.com to determine drive times instead of real time traffic data is just one example of the lack of importance the Hospital places on this process.”
Elected officials, organized labor and some community groups have been railing against the proposed closure, arguing that it will impose undue burdens on patients and force them to travel significant distances for maternal health care.
DPH on Aug. 7 concluded that the facility’s services “are in fact necessary for preserving access and health status within the Hospital s service area.”
However, the department’s options might be limited. DPH can send written comments back to UMass Memorial within 10 days of receiving the plan, which was dated Aug. 22, but the department itself says it does not have authority to force a hospital to keep a service open.
Opponents of the proposed closure continue to urge action by the Healey administration despite DPH’s legal limitations.
“We urge the Governor and the DPH to use their power to stop this closure, as the only alternative or plan that will protect these families is not to allow this closure to take place. The current plan proposed by UMASS Memorial Health Alliance does not align with the State’s goal to ensure greater equity in the delivery of maternal child services for all,” said Eladia Romero, co-chair of Community United to Save OUR Birthing Center, in a statement. “Due to the proposed date of closure, September 23, 2023, we are hopeful that the Governor will act swiftly to protect all pregnant women and babies in our community.”
Lawmakers, particularly those from central Massachusetts, have been pushing for legislation that would give DPH new regulatory teeth. One bill would allow DPH to place hospitals or free-standing clinics set to close into state receivership. Another proposal (H 1175 / S 736) would require a hospital to provide notice of a planned closure at least one year in advance and empower the attorney general to seek an injunction to keep an “essential service” in place for that full year.
The Health Care Financing Committee heard testimony in June on the latter measure but has not taken action on it since then. Many lawmakers have been on a vacation break since the start of August, and legislative leaders have not signaled when they plan to return to formal business.