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UMass presses forward with Leominster closure despite community pushback

Fawn Gagnon, an employee at UMass Memorial HealthAlliance - Clinton, held a baby doll during a rally in May in front of the hospital against the announced closure of the labor and delivery unit in Leominster.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

UMass Memorial Health is pushing forward with the closure of maternity services at Leominster hospital, saying in a letter to state officials that it is developing a transportation plan to accommodate women who will have to give birth elsewhere than the local hospital.

The plan drew condemnation and pushback from advocates, who are strengthening their efforts to stop the closure. Last week, an attorney hired by the city of Leominster filed a notice to the health system, stating that they had been retained to “advise the city on any rights it may have” with respect to the closure. Additionally, the Worcester NAACP has signed on to the effort to stop the closure, writing a letter to hospital administrators and the governor urging the health system to reverse course.

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“Failure to save this service, in the stark words of one of the community advocates who spoke at the [Department of Public Health] hearing, will result in ‘killing Black and brown people,’” Fred Taylor, president of the Worcester chapter of the NAACP, wrote in the letter, referencing an hours-long hearing in response to the planned closure held in July. “We therefore call upon UMass Memorial Health and your administration to work with members of the legislature to find a way to preserve this.”

Earlier this month, state officials determined the maternity unit was critical to maintaining health in the region, and required the hospital to submit detailed explanations and workarounds for the planned closure.

In a 17-page response submitted Tuesday, UMass Memorial Health said it would develop some accommodations and committed to analyzing the effects of the closure, but still was moving ahead with its plans.

To address community concerns, the hospital intends to set up transportation services for non-emergency transport of local patients and family members to other area hospitals.

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The hospital added that labor rarely requires transfer by EMS or leads to out-of-hospital deliveries. Only 1 percent of deliveries statewide happen out of the hospital, and the vast majority of those are planned deliveries in non-hospital birthing centers or at home. The health system said additional training will be provided to area EMS providers in the rare cases where it is needed, and the health system will rely on its existing protocols to manage emergency cases.

The hospital also said it has offered privileges to clinicians who practice at Leominster hospital so they can perform deliveries at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester.

“For the last several years, the Hospital has had an average of fewer than two births a day,” the hospital wrote in its letter. “The other alternative delivery sites can incorporate this volume into their current practices, and the Medical Center has capacity to accept all of the projected births.”

Finally, the health system said it has retained Health Resources in Action to assess the state of prenatal and postpartum care in the region, which will inform the development of a grant program. The organization will also conduct an annual assessment of the closure’s impact.

The state will have 10 days to respond to the letter.

Yet advocates said the plan doesn’t go far enough to address a litany of concerns. Patients will still have to seek care elsewhere, a difficult proposition during high-traffic times. Nurses with the Massachusetts Nurses Association also contested the idea that there was adequate capacity to manage an influx of birthing patients in Worcester.

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“There is no way we can take care of the patients from Leominster and Fitchburg,” said Barbara Labuff, a maternity nurse at UMass Memorial, in a statement. “We don’t have the infrastructure, resources and staff to handle those patients as we are struggling to provide adequate care to those patients we have now. Closing this service will not only harm the patients of North County, but it will degrade our ability to care for patients here in Worcester.”

Leominster Mayor Dean Mazzarella called the hospital’s plans “embarrassing,” saying that a month out from the projected September closure date, the health system still hadn’t finalized its alternative transportation offerings or fully understood the impacts of the closure.

Mazzarella said he appreciated that the health care business was changing, having seen an evolution of his local hospital to eventually be acquired by UMass during his decades-long tenure as mayor. He had presided over the town as Leominster’s hospital closed pediatrics, and then cardiac care.

But closing maternity services just didn’t make sense, given the high number of births from women in the area, and the success of smaller maternity programs at other nearby hospitals, he said.

“We’re shocked that they even proposed this,” Mazzarella said. “And we want to make sure we explore every possible avenue to stop this from happening.”


Jessica Bartlett can be reached at jessica.bartlett@globe.com. Follow her @ByJessBartlett.