Update: Department of Public Health says Tobey’s maternity unit is essential

Nov 4, 2019

The Department of Public Health has deemed the maternity ward at Tobey Hospital to be essential, but it doesn’t have the power to overrule Southcoast Health’s decision to close the unit at the end of this year, announced on Aug. 29.

“Every single decision Southcoast Health makes is in the best interests of the patients we serve – our families, friends, and neighbors,” said Renee Clark, Southcoast’s executive vice president and chief operating officer.

Under state law, the department requires Southcoast to put together a plan detailing how residents will be able to access maternity services after the unit closes, including travel times, how care will be continued during the transition, and an assessment of the transportation needs of patients.

The department is also imposing several other conditions due, in part, to the testimony at the public hearing on Oct. 23 as well as written testimony submitted after the hearing.

Southcoast’s plan must also include information about the competency of staff who will remain at Tobey after the unit closes, as some patients will still arrive at the hospital in labor or in need of pregnancy or post-partum care. The hospital also needs to have detailed information about the transportation needs of patients, particularly those who are low-income, what resources will exist for them after the unit closes, and how information about those resources will be distributed. The cultural and linguistic needs of patients also need to be assessed, as does the access to post-partum services like lactation counseling. Finally, the hospital needs to assess the impact on the unit’s staff.

The Department will assess the hospital’s plan to make sure that it adequately meets the needs of patients. Southcoast has 15 days to respond to the department’s request.

“It’s our hope that Southcoast will take these findings seriously and will opt to keep the unit open and intact,” added Sharon Miksch, a Tobey RN and chairperson of the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA) bargaining unit at the hospital. “It’s an irreplaceable service, and instead of closing it Southcoast should showcase it as a model for other hospitals.”

Southcoast cited dwindling numbers of births in its decision to close Tobey’s unit, along with ongoing expansions of the unit at St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford.

Senator Marc Pacheco has filed an Act Relative to Essential Health Services (S.1331) which would suspend the license of a hospital if it stopped offering essential services, and no facilities in a 10-mile radius of the hospital offered those services.

Essential services are delineated by Massachusetts law and determined by the Department of Public Health, and include emergency services, cardiac surgery, an intensive care unit, and a burn unit, among others.

“The Department of Public Health is saying this service should be maintained, but then what happens is there’s no teeth in the law to require the hospital to continue the service,” Pacheco said. “That’s what the bill is all about, to make sure essential services will be maintained.”

Pacheco said the closure of essential services is an increasing problem across the state, due in part to hospitals making decisions for business reasons. His bill would “protect the citizens in the region by ensuring essential services are maintained.”

“We’re grateful to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health for issuing its anticipated finding and for laying out the steps necessary to transition maternity services from Tobey Hospital by December 31, 2019,” Clark said. “In the coming days, we will work with DPH to finalize plans that will ensure increased and enhanced access to maternal and newborn services for our region's residents. We look forward to continuing our focus on exceptional quality and care close to home.”