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Johnson Memorial Hospital seeks to close labor and delivery unit

Preparation for an October rally in favor of access to safe birthing in rural Connecticut communities.
Preparation for an October rally in favor of access to safe birthing in rural Connecticut communities.

Johnson Memorial Hospital in Stafford Springs is seeking to permanently close its labor and delivery unit, joining several other Connecticut rural hospitals in cutting back on maternity and other services.

In a press release Wednesday, Trinity Health of New England, which acquired Johnson Memorial Hospital and Home & Community Health Services in 2016, described the health system’s plans to “transform its hospital-based services to meet the current and future needs of the local community more effectively.”

In addition to the labor and delivery unit, the hospital plans to discontinue surgical services, the intensive care unit and the medical/surgical unit at Johnson Memorial’s campus in Stafford. Birthing patients will be directed to deliver at Saint Francis Hospital in Hartford, 30 miles away; outpatient surgeries will be performed at Johnson Memorial’s Enfield campus; and the other services will be made available “at another Trinity Health of New England hospital,” according to the press release.

Trinity noted that Johnson Memorial would file a required public notice through the state Office of Health Strategy, seeking approval to close the labor and delivery unit. “These proposed changes are expected to take approximately 12 to 18 months to implement and are dependent on the state’s Office of Health Strategy (OHS) approval,” the press release states.

A representative for OHS wasn’t immediately available to comment.

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Patient advocates have argued that cutting services at rural hospitals can have several negative impacts, such as limiting access to care, increasing costs for patients and reducing choice — all of which can have the combined effect of exacerbating existing health inequities. Many have pointed out the danger to birthing patients who don’t have transportation to bring them to another hospital.

The changes Trinity is planning for Johnson Memorial align closely with those proposed in recent years by other rural Connecticut hospitals. Those hospitals share a common feature: They’ve all come under new ownership by larger health systems. As hospital systems consolidate, they often reorganize — eliminating services that are less profitable or duplicative.

Prospect Medical Holdings, a Los Angeles-based company that owns 16 hospitals across the country including three in Connecticut, sought to downgrade its ICU and discontinue surgical services at Rockville General Hospital in Vernon. Nuvance Health, which owns seven hospitals across western Connecticut and the Hudson Valley, has filed to eliminate the birthing unit at Sharon Hospital and replace the ICU there with what’s known as a progressive care unit.

Last week, Hartford HealthCare, which owns seven hospitals in Connecticut, was initially denied its request to cut labor and delivery services at Windham Hospital, about 40 minutes from Hartford. The hospital now has the opportunity to appeal that decision before the state issues a final decision.

Trinity Health owns three hospitals in Connecticut. The health system suspended labor and delivery at Johnson Memorial following a March 2020 executive order from Gov. Ned Lamont that allowed hospitals to temporarily shut down some services in order to increase capacity for coronavirus patients. Birthing services resumed at Johnson Memorial in July 2020 but shut down again in October of the same year.

Last month, the Office of Health Strategy issued a fine to Johnson Memorial of $394,000 for terminating labor and delivery services without approval — $1,000 a day for 394 days. Until this week, Trinity had said it planned to reopen the unit once it could find appropriate staffing.

Now it’s seeking to shutter the unit.

Lisa Knightly, president of the Johnson Memorial Hospital Nurses chapter of the AFT union, said she and fellow members are “concerned for our community’s future well-being.” OHS oversight is key, “given the scope of the proposed transformation of care to be provided at our hospital and the region’s facilities,” Knightly said in an emailed statement.

“This part of Connecticut is quickly becoming a health care desert, leaving patients to travel long distances for vital health services,” she said.

As part of its planned “transformation of services,” Trinity is boosting investments in behavioral health, as well as geriatric care, assisted living and senior housing on its Stafford campus, and it’s augmenting cancer and outpatient surgery services at its Enfield campus, it said.

“Redesigning care delivery to safely meet the needs of the local community remains the hospital’s top priority,” the press release states. “It will allow Johnson Memorial to reach new levels of patient-centered care and service excellence, while continuing its longstanding commitment to the local community.”

Trinity emphasized that it’s working to adhere to OHS regulations. John Brady, executive vice president of AFT CT, a union that represents health care workers, said he found that encouraging.

“We hope that bodes well … for a more transparent approach going forward. Our guiding principle is to protect the needs of the communities we serve,” he said in an emailed statement.

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