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CT approves closure of labor and delivery at Windham Hospital

Activists stood on the steps of the state Capitol on November 13, 2023 to protest the proposed closure of the labor and delivery unit at Windham Hospital.
Activists stood on the steps of the state Capitol on November 13, 2023 to protest the proposed closure of the labor and delivery unit at Windham Hospital.

The state Office of Health Strategy announced on Friday the approval of a plan to terminate labor and delivery services at Windham Hospital, bringing an end to a three-year saga that pitted community organizers against one of the state’s largest health systems.

Under the terms of the settlement, Windham Hospital, owned by Hartford HealthCare, must hire an independent third party to assess the need for and feasibility of establishing a birthing center in the area. If the study concludes that it is necessary and possible to do so, the hospital will have to either find a provider to operate a birthing center or operate it themselves.

“Together with Windham Hospital, we carefully crafted this settlement to ensure the healthcare of birthing parents is not compromised by the termination,” said OHS executive director Deidre Gifford in a statement.

The hospital will also be required to provide both emergency and non-emergency transportation for the birthing parent, as well as any support people, to and from the hospital for pre-delivery exams, labor and delivery, and post-delivery visits. Windham Hospital will continue to provide prenatal and postpartum care.

“Windham Hospital’s decision to end childbirth services has always been about providing safe and sustainable care for women and babies. The state Office of Health Strategy’s settlement with the hospital underscores our commitment to a safe childbirth experience, while acknowledging the existing and enhanced pre- and post-natal programs and services we continue to provide,” said president of Windham and Backus Hospitals Donna Handley in the same statement.

The decision marks the first of three applications currently under consideration by OHS to close labor and delivery units in rural areas of the state.

In addition to Windham Hospital, two other rural hospitals — Johnson Memorial in Stafford and Sharon Hospital — also have pending applications to terminate birthing services. If all three receive approval, Day Kimball Hospital in Putnam would be the only rural hospital in the state offering birthing services.

Windham Hospital stopped performing births in June 2020. Three months later, Hartford HealthCare applied for state approval — known as a “certificate of need” — to officially close the unit, pointing to patient safety concerns due to low birth volumes and difficulty recruiting health care providers.

Community organizers from Windham have sustained a fierce campaign opposing the closure for over three years, holding vigils and protests in Windham and Hartford to voice their concerns about the service cuts.

“This is how you kill a small city,” said Willimantic town council member Rodney Alexander on the steps of the state Capitol during a November evening vigil calling for the restoration of services. “How can you convince a young couple to move to Willimantic, raise a family, with no maternity ward?”

In July 2022, OHS issued an initial denial of the proposal to permanently close labor and delivery at Windham, finding that, among other potential negative outcomes, the move could exacerbate existing health inequities, diminish access, increase costs and limit patient choice in the region.

Per the approval process, Hartford HealthCare appealed the decision the following month, which gave the health system the opportunity to present additional evidence and conduct another round of oral arguments.

Among the new evidence Hartford HealthCare presented was the findings from a survey where hospital administrators reported “needing at least 200 annual births for safety and financial viability.” Hartford HealthCare noted that “Windham handled approximately 100 births in each of its last several years of operation.”

The survey’s authors also concluded that “many administrators indicated prioritizing local community needs for obstetric care over concerns about viability and staffing.”

The issue of low birth volumes at Windham has been one of the most contentious points of disagreement between Hartford HealthCare and community members opposed to the closure.

“It comes down to both sides saying it’s unsafe,” said John Brady in a November 2021 interview with the CT Mirror. Brady is a registered nurse and serves as the executive vice president of AFT CT, a union representing health care professionals, as well as teachers and public employees.

According to the statement, once both OHS and Windham sign the agreement, the parties will meet to establish a work plan for the study of the birthing center.

This story was originally published by The Connecticut Mirror on Dec. 1, 2023.

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