Maternity wards are closing across the United States, with drastic effects for women and babies living in rural areas. In places where the closest maternity ward is an hour or more away, some women have been forced to give birth in their cars on the side of the road because they can’t make it to the hospital in time.
Vox reported that Shantel Jones went into labor in November 2020, and planned to go to Windham Community Memorial Hospital in Connecticut when she was told that the hospital was no longer offering maternity services. Jones and her mother began the 30-mile drive to Norwich, but Jones had to give birth on the side of the road. The baby boy ended up needing intensive care, and had to be sent to a hospital in Hartford.
Jones is not the only woman from a rural area in the United States who has given birth en route to a hospital. Jeff Barnhart, chief executive at Hereford Regional Medical Center in the Texas Panhandle, told The Texas Tribune that he knows of many women who tried to reach his hospital, only to give birth at rest stops, at the roadside, and even in the hospital’s parking lot.
Hospitals claim that financial difficulties and worker shortages due to COVID-19 have forced them to discontinue maternity care. During the pandemic, some hospitals suspended labor and delivery services, then decided to close those departments permanently. However, there is evidence that other financial motivations are driving maternity ward closures. Hospitals can’t make much money delivering babies, since Medicaid covers almost half of all births and Medicaid has low reimbursement rates. It isn’t cost effective for hospitals to offer maternity services in small, rural communities, which are more affected by the trend of declining birth rates.
Hospitals across the country are working on consolidating resources. This means that physicians are delivering babies almost exclusively in hospitals with high-volume maternity wards, since it is cheaper than delivering babies in hospitals with low-volume maternity wards.
A 2020 Maternal Care Report by March of Dimes states that more than 2.2 million American women of childbearing age live in “maternity care deserts” in 1,095 U.S. counties with no hospital offering obstetric care, no birth center, and no obstetric provider. According to the report, the U.S. rate of maternal death remains higher than most other high income countries, with approximately 700 American women dying of pregnancy and birth complications, and more than 50,000 women experiencing a life-threatening birth complication each year.
Communities experiencing maternity ward closures are standing up to corporate hospitals and demanding the care their women and children need. Citizens of Connecticut, together with Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford, have recently sued Hartford HealthCare, accusing the medical network of violating the Connecticut Antitrust Act and the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act.
Rose Reyes, a resident and town council member of Windham, Connecticut, opposes Hartford HealthCare’s closure of her hometown’s maternity ward. “These institutions are making these siloed decisions without collaborating. Without input, without respecting and deferring to the community,” Reyes told Vox.
If more communities like Reyes’ push back against harmful hospital closures, corporate healthcare systems will have to listen and provide the critical care women and their babies so desperately need – in every part of the country.
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