Union Blasts State for Letting Salem County Hospital End Maternity Care

Andrew Kitchenman | April 9, 2014 | Health Care
Nurses express concern about poor public transit affecting women in rural county

Salem Memorial Hospital
The end of inpatient maternity services at Memorial Hospital of Salem County has prompted criticism from the union representing the hospital’s nurses, who say it could endanger low-income mothers in an area with few transportation options.

State officials and hospital staff cited the hospital’s declining share of local births, the low number of obstetricians/gynecologists at the facility, the availability of maternity services at other hospitals near Salem County, and the continued presence of emergency services as reasons why the change shouldn’t be reversed.

But officials with the Health Professionals and Allied Employees union pointed to a recent rise in infant mortality in Salem County as a reason to oppose the change.

For-profit hospital owner Community Health System (CHS) Inc. had been required to maintain services for 10 years after it took over Salem County and converted it to for-profit status in 2002. In a recent report, union officials accused the state of inadequate oversight.

The union’s position received support from Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem).

“I was here when CHS made the promises and they tried to get out of nearly every single promise they made,” Sweeney said in a statement released by the union. “All CHS cares about is taking money out of this state, and not caring for the people who live here.”

Hospital officials said in a statement that they are working with the Inspira Health Network, which operates Salem County’s other hospital — in Elmer — and the South Jersey Perinatal Cooperative to ensure a “seamless transition” for patients and families when inpatient obstetric services end on May 31.

Memorial Hospital of Salem County Interim CEO Barry Schneider said the hospital’s top priority is ensuring that mothers and newborns have access to the highest quality care.

“Making this change will allow us to invest and allocate our resources for physician recruitment and infrastructure to meet the increasing demand for surgical services, such as orthopedic, vascular and general surgery, and other specialties such as rheumatology and endocrinology,” Schneider said, adding that the hospitals is working to improve gynecologic surgery, bariatric surgery, and wound-care programs.

HPAE public policy staff member Bridget Devane said the end of Salem’s maternity services lends support to a broader criticism that critics of the expansion of for-profit hospitals in the state have made: for-profit operators will close unprofitable services, harming patients.

“It’s a rural community that relies on this community hospital — if other services are going to be cut, it puts people at risk,” Devane said.

Devane said the union has requested that state officials receive a commitment from CHS that it had a plan to ensure the Salem hospital’s long-term success.

In addition, the union questioned whether the hospital made sufficient efforts to recruit OB/GYNs. Devane also said the union is concerned about the plans to transport patients to other hospitals and the amount of training that emergency-room personnel would receive to handle mothers who continue to come to the hospital for births.

Devane added that CHS has failed to make the hospital on a firm financial footing, a promise that the company made in 2002.

In an April 1 letter to Schneider approving the change, state official John A. Calabria noted that there are several conditions that the hospital must meet. It must notify various healthcare and community groups of the change; continue to provide emergency services to women for whom birth is imminent, as well as arrange transport to the hospitals that the women choose that do provide maternity services; and provide a timetable and logistics surrounding the discontinuation of services.

Inspira President and CEO John DiAngelo said in a statement released by Memorial Hospital that his system, which has hospitals in Vineland and Woodbury in addition to Elmer, has the capacity to serve the women and babies before and after birth. Each of the Inspira hospitals provides testing, genetic counseling, ultrasounds, and other exams needed by expectant mothers.