Reproductive rights advocates are breathing a sigh of relief after learning Thursday that a planned early September closing has been postponed for the North Shore Birth Center in Beverly, the last operating, free-standing center in Eastern Massachusetts.
The potential loss had raised concerns about dwindling access to maternity services, particularly for low-income families and women of color.
But in an internal email to staff Thursday, Beverly Hospital president Tom Sands, said that after conversations with leadership in the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services and the Department of Public Health, the hospital decided to extend its review of the planned closure. He said that would provide more time for additional conversations with state and local officials, as well as elected leaders and community advocates on “the complex challenges associated with feasibly operating the [birth center] for the long-term.”
He did not include a timetable for any further decisions.
“It’s a great first step,” said Emilee Regan, a Swampscott mother of three who had one of her children at the birth center, and who is a spokeswoman for the grassroots campaign to save the 42-year-old center.
“We hope these conversations will take place quickly, as pregnant patients continue to struggle to access care and the birth options they have chosen for their family,” she said.
In the past 12 years, seven hospital maternity units have closed across the state, including three in the past three years in Southeastern Massachusetts, according to the Massachusetts Nurses Association.
The North Shore Birth Center, run out of a cottage on the grounds of Beverly Hospital, offers women with low- to moderate-risk pregnancies an option of delivering their babies without drugs to induce labor and control pain or machines to monitor the process. But since January, patients have not been able to deliver their babies at the center, as Beth Israel cited a staffing shortage there. The Center has continued to provide comprehensive pre-natal and post-partum care to patients who have delivered at Beverly Hospital or elsewhere.
A growing chorus of local and state leaders, as well as members of the Congressional delegation, have implored Beth Israel Lahey Health to reconsider its closure plans. That included a strongly-worded, four-page letter last month from Senators Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren and Representative Seth Moulton that described the company’s plans as “not predicated on the best interests of patients and staff, and is instead an attempt to shift patients into more lucrative hospital care, padding the hospital’s profits.”
State rules require hospitals planning to eliminate or reduce an essential service to undergo a lengthy review to ensure alternative measures have been put in place and minimize the impact on the community. However, the state cannot legally require a hospital to keep a service open.
Part of that review includes a public hearing, which took place last month. During that hours-long session, Sands, the hospital president, testified that it was “not patient volume, not reimbursement, nor community support” that was the driving force behind the decision to close, according to a transcript from that hearing. Rather, he said, it “was the inability to find the right complement of qualified staff in a range of important roles necessary to run a high-quality, hospital-based birth center.”
Current and former staff have pushed back on those assertions, saying the company did little to promote or support the center.
“In a world where childbearing patients turn to Google nearly immediately after a positive pregnancy test, the hospital relied solely on word-of-mouth to advertise its gem,” according to testimony from that July hearing from Amanda Alba, a former midwife at the center.
Center workers said the company made few attempts to recruit midwives, who typically work in birth centers. The company, they said, failed to post job openings consistently to standard national databases where midwives seek work.
In a public statement Thursday, Sands, the hospital president, did not elaborate on what, precisely, convinced Beth Israel Lahey to pause its closure plans. But in a Tuesday letter from Dr. Kevin Tabb, Beth Israel’s chief executive, to Marylou Sudders, the state’s health secretary, Tabb thanked Sudders for her “recent phone call” and said the company agreed with her that it should spend additional time bringing together leaders from the company with state officials, as well as the community, for further conversations.
Tabb also pledged in that letter that no further decisions about the birth center would be made for 90 days as they engaged in those discussions.