Johnson Memorial Hospital Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

The financial sustainability of Stafford-based Johnson Memorial Hospital remains a concern, Trinity Health of New England officials told state regulators during a Wednesday hearing on a request to formally close the hospital’s labor and delivery unit.

Representatives of the health care system testified before the state Office of Health Strategy during a multi-hour hearing in New Britain. The regulatory body is weighing a Certificate of Need request by the hospital for state approval to discontinue its birthing services, which it ceased operating in 2020.

During Wednesday’s proceedings, Dr. Robert Roose, the hospital’s chief administrative officer, was asked by an OHS official whether the rural hospital’s financial situation put it at risk of closure. The question caught him off guard.

“That is not a question I was thinking about answering today, I’ll be honest,” Roose said. “The sustainability of hospitals in the current health care environment is one that is being considered. Right now, there are many hospitals, Johnson Memorial Hospital included, for which financial sustainability is a concern.” 

While those financial concerns were not limited to the hospital’s shuttered maternity ward, Roose argued that declining birth rates and persistent staffing difficulties made continuing to operate delivery services neither cost-effective nor safe.

“In a low-volume environment with consequently an inability to retain the qualified labor and delivery nursing staff with the appropriate competencies and providers, we can not provide those services safely,” he said.

Johnson executives have tried to demonstrate to state officials that they made considerable efforts to recruit qualified staff to provide those services.

The hospital stopped offering labor and delivery services during the pandemic, when an executive order from Gov. Ned Lamont gave healthcare providers greater latitude to temporarily discontinue services without explicit state approval.

After the order expired in October 2020, the hospital never resumed offering birthing services and delayed in requesting a Certificate of Need. That delay prompted regulators to seek to impose a $394,000 fine, which the hospital has contested.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Roose told regulators that Johnson had delivered two babies since the closure of the unit. However, he said that efforts to recruit and train maternity staff had resulted in newly trained nurses leaving JMH in order to work at busier maternity wards.

An OHS official asked Roose to provide a minimum volume of expectant mothers that would allow Johnson Memorial Hospital to provide a safe maternity program. Roose said it was difficult to provide a specific metric.

“There is no magic number where I would say ‘safe’ or ‘not safe,’” he said. “It is a continuum of risk and it is really based upon the ability to safely operate the services, although lower deliveries makes that more challenging.”

The effort to close JMH’s maternity ward follows a recent trend by Connecticut hospital systems to downsize initiatives at smaller facilities and redirect patients to larger hospitals. Over the last several years, the Office of Health Strategy has weighed requests to close labor and delivery services at Windham Hospital and Sharon Hospital.

Wednesday’s hearing was expected to continue with public comments and closing arguments later in the afternoon.

Some parties filed written commentary ahead of the hearing, including AFT Connecticut, a labor union representing some nurses and other healthcare professionals. John Brady, a registered nurse and vice president of the union, wrote in opposition to the closure, saying that women in rural areas faced higher risks of pregnancy-related complications.

“While we recognize that continuing Labor & Delivery at Johnson Memorial Hospital may not be profitable, it must be balanced against the needs of the residents of the area and Johnson Memorial Hospital should understand that it has a responsibility to provide basic healthcare services to the area,” Brady wrote.