Hartford Hospital grounds. Credit: Christine Stuart / CTNewsJunkie

The maternity units at three rural Connecticut hospitals have closed, suspended services, or are planning to close. What hospitals need in order to officially close or suspend a service like a maternity ward will be under discussion today by the General Assembly’s Insurance and Real Estate Committee. 

One of the hospitals that has asked the state to close its maternity ward is Windham Hospital, which is owned by Hartford Healthcare. 

“To see Hartford Healthcare eliminate these services at Windham Hospital, and the other hospitals dealing with similar issues they’re not even going through the process, it’s just outrageous,” Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Windham, has said. 

Hartford Hospital was fined $65,000 in February for discontinuing maternity services in 2020 before filing a “certificate of need” application with the state. They are appealing the decision.

“After years of declining births and recruitment challenges, Windham Hospital sought state approval over 18 months ago to discontinue its childbirth services. As our Certificate of Need application explained, and as experts testified, it had become impossible to provide a safe, quality childbirth experience at Windham Hospital due to departures of obstetricians and trained staff,” a spokeswoman from Hartford Healthcare said.

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At a hearing last November, Hartford HealthCare officials said births at Windham Hospital have dropped precipitously since a practice in Mansfield opened and decided to send its patients to Manchester for delivery.

The community has been upset with the decision.

Flexer said “If hospital systems aren’t going to do the right thing because it’s right for our patients and people in the community then we’re going to have to put some penalties in place.”

A bill that will be the subject of a public hearing today seeks to reform what’s called the “certificate of need” process to prevent hospitals from terminating services before requesting regulatory approval.

Windham Hospital suspended maternity services in the middle of 2020.

“They were slapped on the wrist with a fine while local women have been forced to scramble for care and travel outside the region to give birth,” Ed Hawthorne, president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, said in written testimony. “Big, powerful healthcare chain executives, like those at Hartford HealthCare, should put the communities they serve first in exchange for the benefit of their generous tax-exempt status.”

The other hospitals suspending maternity service are Johnson Memorial Hospital in Stafford and Sharon Hospital.

Johnson Memorial Hospital, which is owned by Trinity Health New England, has said “after ongoing and careful consideration, we implemented a temporary pause of the labor and delivery services approximately one year ago. The decision was made largely in response to pandemic-related staffing challenges which resulted in staff turnover and difficulty in recruitment of new, qualified staff.”

Dr. Mark Hirko, president of Sharon Hospital, has said they were seeing maybe 180 births per year, which was not enough to support a maternity unit.

“I’m a physician and you want to do no harm and you want to offer all things to all people. We’re in a situation where we can’t do that,” Hirko said.