U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes speaks at a rally Sunday Credit: Terry Cowgill photo

A group of Northwestern Connecticut patients and public officials rallied over the weekend to stave off an effort by Nuvance Health to close the maternity unit at Sharon Hospital, a small facility on the state’s rural New York border. 

Late last year, Nuvance, owner of Sharon Hospital, applied for approval from the state Office of Health Strategy to close its labor and delivery unit. The request mirrors similar efforts to shut down smaller maternity facilities by Hartford HealthCare at Windham Hospital and Trinity Health of New England at Johnson Memorial Hospital in Stafford. 

Like those facilities, officials at Vassar Health Connecticut/Nuvance Health pointed to declining birth rates and difficulties recruiting and retaining obstetrics and gynecology staff in their application to terminate labor and delivery services in Sharon. 

The OHS, which approves or rejects such requests by providers, postponed a hearing on the matter that had been scheduled for Tuesday. However, locals and state officials rallied in opposition to the plan on Sunday and residents in both Connecticut and New York have submitted written testimony asking the state to reject the maternity ward closure. 

In one such letter, Lakeville resident Hope Mongeau said that both of her sons were delivered at Sharon Hospital. 

“I can’t imagine having to drive 45 minutes to an hour to get to a hospital when in labor, especially in bad weather. This is a rural part of the state served by secondary roads, some of which are unpaved,” Mongeau wrote. “Now that we are in our seventies, I am terrified that we may not be able to get the care we would need if we had a sudden stroke or heart attack. We need Sharon Hospital to be the full service facility that it has been for all these years.”

The request also prompted a letter from U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who urged the state to reject the application. 

“Rural areas by their nature are not densely populated and therefore the delivery of health services may not be as lucrative as in urban centers. However, people must have safe and easily accessible health care no matter where they live,” Blumenthal wrote. 

In a statement Monday, Nuvance Health spokesperson Marina Ballantine said that Sharon Hospital had faced the same challenges as rural hospitals across the country, challenges that were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Ballantine said the Sharon Hospital plan, which also includes scaling down Sharon’s intensive care unit, comes as Nuvance invests in expanding primary and specialty care through new equipment and upgraded facilities. 

“For this growth to be possible, we had to make the difficult decision to phase out our Labor & Delivery department,” Ballantine said. “We are currently seeking regulatory approval to close the unit, which has seen less than one birth per day on average over the past 10 years, often going days at a time without a delivery.

“We understand that this service has been incredibly meaningful to our community over the years, and we appreciate the continued engagement of community members and public officials throughout this process. However, we know that this is the best decision to ensure Sharon Hospital can continue to support our community for years to come,” Ballantine said.

However, the hospital will first need approval from the OHS, which had not yet announced a date for the rescheduled hearing. Earlier this year, the office recommended denying Hartford HealthCare’s request to shutter labor and delivery services at Windham Hospital in a decision the health care system has since appealed.