Young mom hugging her newborn baby after delivery. Credit: Natalia Deriabina via Shutterstock

Sharon Hospital and Nuvance Health executives made a case for closing the facility’s maternity ward during a Tuesday hearing in which community advocates and some doctors argued the closure would threaten the wellbeing of local mothers and babies. 

The hearing before a state Office of Health Strategy officer was the most recent step in the health system’s application to discontinue the labor and delivery unit at the small hospital, which serves a rural community in the northwest corner of the state.

Nuvance is one of several Connecticut provider networks which has recently moved to scale back services at its smaller hospitals. Regulators at the Office of Health Strategy have fielded similar requests, called Certificates of Need, to close maternity wards from Hartford HealthCare at Windham Hospital and Trinity Health of New England at Johnson Memorial Hospital in Stafford. 

During Tuesday’s all-day hearing, Sharon Hospital’s attorney, Theodore Tucci, sought to focus the proceedings on the state criteria for discontinuing a health care service and away from the concerns of community organizers who have rallied to bar the maternity ward’s closure through a group called Save Sharon Hospital. 

“Respectfully, CONs are not decided based on fear or controversy or evidence of backlash or concern,” Tucci said. “They should be based on, as we all know, the criteria, the statutory criteria that apply to CONs and whether or not there are findings and conclusions that back up those criteria.”

The hospital’s administration told the hearing officer that closure of the unit was necessary both to ensure the hospital’s continued financial survival and because the number of patients using the labor and delivery services were not adequate to justify its continued operation.

Dr. John Murphy, president and CEO of Nuvance Health, said Sharon Hospital was in “serious financial distress” and its losses exceeded $20 million during the two-year period between 2020 and 2021. 

“The bottom line there is that the current model of providing care and the services that we provide and the manner in which they are provided is simply not sustainable,” Murphy said. “We saw this a couple of years ago, this trend, and by the way, this trend is facing hospitals across the United States.”

However, Paul Knag, a lawyer representing Save Sharon Hospital urged the hearing officer to consider another trend: soaring maternity mortality rates in the United States. According to a report by the Commonwealth Fund, pregnant women die near the end of their pregnancies in the U.S. at a rate more than three times that of most other wealthy countries. 

“The key issue here in our view is that we have a crisis in this country with reference to maternal mortality and the rate of maternal mortality has doubled in the last several years in the United States,” Knag said. “And why is that? Because we’ve been seeing this wave of closures of maternity units in rural areas and once that happens there’s a precipitous increase in maternal and baby death rates.”

Dr. Howard Mortman, an obstetrics and gynecology specialist in Sharon, called the nation’s maternity mortality rate shameful and argued that the labor and delivery services at Sharon Hospital could not be discontinued without risking the safety of new mothers in the area. 

“Based on my 31 years of practicing in this remote area, I am certain that mothers and babies will die and undergo serious morbidity over the coming years,” Mortman said. 

“Unless we’re prepared to go to the dark ages and become a health care desert there’s no way in the world that our area will be safe if you close the maternity and the ancillary service that we’ve come to expect at Sharon Hospital,” Mortman said later.

Brent Colley, first selectman of the town of Sharon, urged the Office of Health Strategy to consider the impact of reducing services at the hospital on the rural town that houses it.

“I’d be happy to drive you around and show you our beautiful areas and regions but also show you how long it would take us to get to the different hospitals that are our other options,” Colley said. “They’re not 40 minutes away, they’re 45 to an hour if we’re lucky.”

The alternate labor and delivery locations identified by the applicant are Charlotte Hungerford Hospital in Torrington, which is 25 miles away, Danbury Hospital, which is 40 miles away, Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, which is 25 miles away, Northern Dutchess Hospital, which is 32 miles away and Vassar Brothers Medical Center, which is 34 miles away, both in New York.

The hearing prompted written and spoken testimony from dozens of residents and was still ongoing Tuesday afternoon. 

In addition to doctors, community members and local officials, state officials like Rep. Maria Horn, a Salisbury Democrat whose district includes Sharon, testified asking the hearing officer to scrutinize the application. 

“In order to have a thriving state we need to have a thriving hospital which includes maternity care,” Horn said. 

Meanwhile, Attorney General Willima Tong issued a press release, saying that his office had received more than 300 petitions from residents opposed to the maternity ward’s closure. 

“Before requiring parents without transportation to travel 25+ miles to another labor and delivery unit, asking a mother in active labor to travel to travel 40 minutes or more for maternity services, perhaps paying thousands of dollars for emergency transport, or asking a family living paycheck to paycheck to pay thousands of dollars for out-of-network care, the applicant should demonstrate that there is a clear public need for the proposal,” Tong said.