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November 15, 2023

Awaiting state decision, advocates protest proposed Windham Hospital birthing unit closure

SHAHRZAD RASEKH / CT MIRROR Rodney Alexander, a member of the Willimantic town council and vice president of the local NAACP branch, addresses the media at a rally on November 13, 2023.

Activists braved the cold on Monday evening to rally against the proposed closure of the labor and delivery unit at Windham Hospital, one of three Connecticut hospitals currently seeking permission to end birthing services.

“This is how you kill a small city,” said Rodney Alexander, on the steps of the State Capitol. Alexander is a member of the Willimantic town council and vice president of the local NAACP branch. “How can you convince a young couple to move to Willimantic, raise a family, with no maternity ward?”

Hartford HealthCare, the company that owns Windham Hospital, stopped its labor and delivery services in June 2020. Three months later, the hospital filed an application to close the unit permanently, citing patient safety concerns and difficulty recruiting health care providers as the main reasons for the closure. 

More than three years after HHC filed the initial application, the state has not issued a final decision on whether the closure can remain permanent.

“The hospital remains committed to providing the safest birthing option for the community: offering high-quality, coordinated care for mothers and their babies at a hospital of the mother’s choice,” stated Tina Varona, an HHC spokesperson.

“Windham Hospital has also enhanced pre- and post-partum care services that help ensure the best possible outcomes. In the past three years, the hospital has helped coordinate the safe deliveries of more than 260 newborns, the majority of which have taken place at Backus Hospital, named a best hospital in Maternity Care by U.S. News and World Report,” Varona added.

The state’s Office of Health Strategy, or OHS, must grant approval — known as a “certificate of need” — of major health care transactions, like unit closures and acquisitions. Last July, the agency issued a proposed final decision denying Hartford HealthCare’s application. 

“We are asking the state to stand by its decision,” said John Brady, executive vice president of AFT CT, a union whose members include nurses and hospital staff, in this week’s rally. “More than that, we’re asking Hartford HealthCare to do the right thing: Restore the birthing center, without the state forcing its hand. That’s why we are here — why we’ve been here for at least the last three years.”

Per the certificate of need process, once OHS issues a proposed final decision, the applicant has the opportunity to appeal the decision and, if they choose to, the agency holds another round of oral arguments. Then, the state issues a final decision within 90 days. In the past, there have been decisions that have been modified as well as reversed.

Hartford HealthCare appealed the proposed decision and presented oral arguments on November 30, 2022, nearly a year ago. Since then, the community has received limited updates from the state regarding the status of the process, said Lynne Ide, a director at Universal Health Care Foundation of CT and resident of Willimantic.

“What we have heard from OHS is that they’re in negotiations with the hospital to resolve this issue,” said Ide, who delivered all three of her children at Windham Hospital. “They’re telling us that they’re not able to talk to us about what’s going on behind closed doors.”

A spokesperson with OHS did not respond to a request for comment.

Windham is one of three rural hospitals in the state with pending applications to close labor and delivery units, along with Sharon Hospital and Johnson Memorial Hospital in Stafford. 

If all three closures receive state approval, only one of Connecticut’s four rural hospitals — Day Kimball in Putnam — would offer birthing services. Windham and Litchfield counties would be left with one labor and delivery unit each, and Tolland County would have none. 

Though Windham Hospital is furthest along in its application process, it has also been over a year since both Sharon and Johnson Memorial hospitals filed their applications with the state.

OHS has come under fire recently for the lengthiness of the state approval process in light of Yale New Haven Health’s application to acquire three Connecticut hospitals from Prospect Medical Holdings. 

YNHH filed the application in November 2022 and OHS held a public hearing in April 2023. The state said it’s not uncommon for complex transactions to take time and that the agency is well within the timelines required by statute. 

“It is not unusual for complex hospital acquisitions that require multiple layers of review to take a year or more to complete,” wrote an OHS spokesperson in a statement earlier this week. “To rush any one of these reviews would not serve the interests of the public or be in compliance with OHS’s governing statutes.”

But, the timelines of the labor and delivery closure applications have lasted even longer than the YNHH acquisition.

Sharon Hospital, which is owned by Nuvance Health, applied to close its labor and delivery unit in January 2022 as part of a broader effort to align services to the aging population it serves, said Andrea Rynn, a spokesperson for the health system.

“This decision was just one part of a long-term transformation plan focused on investing in our facility to ensure that, based on local data and demographics, our most relevant community needs are met,” stated Rynn.

Rynn added that Nuvance Health has invested $14.5 million “in new equipment, updated facilities, and recruitment of top talent at Sharon Hospital.”

In August 2023, OHS initially denied Nuvance’s application. The hospital appealed the decision and, last week, presented oral arguments. Per the certificate of need process, OHS should issue a final decision within 90 days. Sharon Hospital has continued performing deliveries while it awaits the state’s decision, the only hospital of the three to do so. 

Johnson Memorial stopped performing births in April 2020, though it briefly resumed services for a few months that year. The hospital, which is owned by Trinity Health of New England, applied to close its labor and delivery unit in September 2022 and OHS held a public hearing in July 2023. The agency has not yet issued a proposed final decision. 

“We have and will continue to work closely with the state of Connecticut throughout the CON process. Over the summer we provided testimony in the final public hearing phase of the CON process. The administrative decision is now in deliberation with the Office of Health Strategy,” said Kaitlin Rocheleau, a spokesperson for Trinity Health.

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