With Springfield Hospital’s birthing center closed, expectant mothers face a delivery dilemma

  • Springfield Hospital, one of the Vermont town's largest employers, sits on a hill overlooking the town Friday, March 29, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

  • Kevin Hoague and Jacklyn Healy pose for a portrait in their home in Claremont, N.H., on Friday, May 3, 2019. The couple, preparing for the arrival of their first baby in the next few weeks, were expecting to deliver at Springfield Hospital’s childbirth center when they found out that it was closing. They are now traveling to the Cheshire Medical Center in Keene instead. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Joseph Ressler

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/4/2019 10:05:49 PM
Modified: 5/5/2019 9:58:53 PM

After 105 years of welcoming babies in southern Windsor County, Springfield Hospital’s childbirth center closed its doors on Friday. The closing leaves expectant families with fewer options and requires them to make longer trips for care.

For Charlestown resident Sarah Briggs, who is expecting her third child in August, the hourlong trip to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon is especially concerning because her first child was born in just three hours and her second in two.

“It’s difficult,” the 25-year-old Briggs said. “I was definitely enjoying my experience at Springfield.”

In addition to the convenience, Briggs said she misses the relationship she developed with Dr. Richard Summermatter, the obstetrician who attended her previous deliveries and whom she credits with saving her life when she hemorrhaged after delivering her son. She also liked the attention she received from the center’s nurses as one of just a couple of women in the birthing center at the time of her deliveries.

“With Dartmouth, I won’t have that because there’s going to be more people,” she said.

Springfield Hospital has recently ranged from 150 to 175 births annually, while DHMC welcomes about 1,400 babies each year.

The closing, which is expected to save Springfield Hospital about $700,000 a year, is part of a restructuring plan aimed at allowing the hospital to keep its doors open amid financial turmoil. Springfield Hospital officials, in late April, told state regulators that they anticipate $5.5 million to $6 million in operating losses this fiscal year and said, despite finding $7 million in cost savings, they would describe the hospital’s future as “tenuous,” according to VtDigger.

In addition to closing the birthing center, the hospital’s efforts to stabilize finances have included loans from the state and Berkshire Bank totaling $1.6 million, an increase in rates charged to insurers and a change in its emergency services provider, as well as staff reductions and wage cuts. The salary reductions are expected to be restored on Sunday, according to a recent news release from the hospital.

“We explained to staff that, as soon as we possibly could, wage restoration would be a top priority,” Interim CEO Mike Halstead said in the release. “Our entire staff’s contributions are essential to patient care and a strong future for this organization.”

The birthing center was originally slated to close in June, but the date was moved up due to staffing issues and success in helping women find alternative care, the release said.

Though Springfield Hospital is in an especially precarious position, the pressures on rural hospitals — declining populations, with a high percentage of patients reliant on Medicaid, which reimburses hospitals at lower rates than commercial insurers — are widespread. The high costs of obstetric care; the necessity of such services being staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week; and the low birth rate have contributed to the closing of birthing units across the Upper Valley in recent years, including those at Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital in Lebanon, Valley Regional Hospital in Claremont, New London Hospital and Cottage Hospital in Woodsville.

Other than DHMC, the only hospital that is still operating a birthing unit in the Upper Valley is Gifford Medical Center in Randolph. Two home-birth midwives are working to open a free-standing birthing center in the Lebanon area in an effort to provide women with another option when delivering their babies.

DHMC will continue to serve “high-risk and high-acuity patients referred from Springfield and across all of northern New England, as we’ve been doing as the region’s tertiary care referral center for many years,” D-H spokesman Rick Adams said in an email.

In addition, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health, DHMC’s parent company, continues to have “high-level discussions” with Springfield Hospital officials “about how D-HH can be as helpful as possible to Springfield Hospital and its patients, but no specific actions relating to the two organizations have been discussed,” Adams said.

For families in the southern part of the Upper Valley, other options for delivery include Brattleboro (Vt.) Memorial Hospital, Cheshire Medical Center in Keene — a D-H affiliate — and Rutland Regional Medical Center, all of which are more than 45 minutes from Springfield.

In a pinch, clinicians in Springfield Hospital’s emergency department are capable of assisting with childbirth, the release said.

“We encourage all pregnant patients to create a plan with their obstetrics provider for seeking care when in labor, but also to feel comfortable that, in an emergency, we are prepared,” Emergency Director Guy Nuki said in the release.

Claremont resident Kevin Hoague, 28, said it was “very stressful” to learn in March that the Springfield birthing center would be closing about a week after he and his 21-year-old partner Jacklyn Healy had toured it in preparation for the birth of their first child, which is expected later this month.

“Being our first baby, (we) don’t really know what to do when it comes up,” Hoague said.

But now, despite the additional time spent in the car and the rearranging of work schedules necessary to make it to the now-weekly appointments in Keene, Hoague said that he and Healy are happy with the care she’s receiving at Cheshire.

“Keene is phenomenal,” Hoague said in a phone interview. “I really like everyone.”

Margot Holmes, director of the Springfield Area Parent Child Center, said the community is still assessing the impact of the loss of the childbirth center.

“We are only beginning to understand what the ripple effects from this are going to be,” Holmes said in an email. “It may significantly impact the area for a long time and in ways we haven’t even thought of.”

For now, she said, the parent-child center is focused on supporting families with transportation challenges. To that end, she said she was glad to hear that providers from Brattleboro Memorial Hospital will be offering pre- and post-natal care in Springfield two days a week for women planning to deliver in Brattleboro.

“That is going to be a key factor in providing health services to women regardless of Medicaid status, but certainly even more for those that are challenged with consistent transportation,” Holmes said.

The transportation challenge, which includes access to a car, gas money and additional travel time, is already having a ripple effect for families served by Springfield’s Head Start preschool program. The mother of one participating child also drives another child to the program, but on days when she now has to travel to DHMC for prenatal visits, she cannot bring either child to preschool, according to Lindsay DeCell, an employee of Southeastern Vermont Community Action who works with the families.

The added time has a financial impact on the family and has reduced the support the expectant mother has available to her during her appointments, DeCell said in an email.

The father “would take an hour off work to attend appointments with her, but is not able to take that much time to travel to Dartmouth with her,” DeCell wrote.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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