LEOMINSTER — Protesters lined the area of Nelson and North Main streets Tuesday night to oppose the anticipated closing of the maternity ward at Leominster Hospital.
Recently, UMass Memorial Health Alliance-Clinton Hospital Leominster announced the maternity ward would close Sept. 22. However, regulators must first approve the plan. Protesters said the decision would force expectant mothers to travel to places like Gardner, Worcester or Concord to deliver their babies or in an emergency room.
UMass Memorial Health Alliance – Clinton Hospital President Steve Roach cited “industry-wide workforce shortages” and “a declining birth rate” in the region as the rationale for shuttering the birthing center in a statement last week.
The announcement has been met with an overwhelmingly negative response.
“This will really impact low-income families the hardest, and those with travel restrictions,” said one protester who chose not to share their name.
Leominster is home to many families that are low-income or fixed-income, 11% are below the poverty line. Protesters said the closure would put the vulnerable in a very difficult position — forcing them to pay costs for travel in a time of crisis.
Several protesters were asked what or whom they believed to be behind this decision, their responses were similar.
“I can only assume that it has to do with big corporations. These conglomerates buy up everything.” one person said.
“Babies before big bucks” said another.
However, state Sen. John Cronin said big business is not to blame.
“This decision was made by one person, Doctor Eric Dickson, the CEO of UMass Memorial health,” Cronin said. “This was a complete failure in leadership to have made this decision without consulting the North Central delegation. What he should have done — what a leader would have done — was let us know what the struggles were so we could keep this service in North Central.”
“Absolute radio silence from UMass Memorial,” Cronin said regarding the failure to communicate with Dickson.
Cronin was not the only member of the delegation in attendance. He was joined by state Reps. Michael Kushmerek, Natalie Higgins and Margaret Scarsdale. Fitchburg Mayor Stephen DiNatale and Leominster Mayor Dean Mazzarella were also present.
This proposed closure comes just a short six months after UMass Memorial was awarded a state grant based on good relationships with the delegation.
“We take pride in being very good partners with the UMass Memorial health system. We have sent tens of millions of dollars to the UMass Memorial health system and those dollars are from taxpayers, and they are for one reason,” Cronin said.
In regards to fighting the proposed closure, Cronin said, “We are asking Dr. Eric Dickson to withdraw the notice of closure and come to the table with us and tell what UMass needs to keep it open in the community. It’s not asking for a lot.”
For many protesters, the decision carries personal significance. The group was comprised of mothers, many of whom had delivered their children in the very maternity ward that stands to close. They felt as though a piece of their own family’s history would be lost as a result of this decision.
“It feels like it’s a part of our history,” said one citizen. “Both of my children were born here.”
The decision has also been slammed by the Massachusetts Nurses Association. In a statement, Miko Nakagawa, a nurse at Leominster Hospital and co-chair of the nurses local bargaining unit with the MNA, said the decision shows a “blatant disregard of our patients and our region.”
“There is no medical or moral justification for this decision, which will have a devastating impact on families, particularly economically disadvantaged residents who lack the ability to travel long distances to receive care in Worcester or Gardner,” Nakagawa added.
The MNA also said nurses in the hospital’s emergency department were concerned about their ability to care for mothers and newborns without the birthing center.
“We struggle now with our emergency department staff to care for our current patient population, and it can take hours to find ambulances to transport patients who need to go to other hospitals. Under these conditions, I don’t see how we could safely manage a mother and baby without the specialized skills and experience of our labor and delivery staff. It’s downright scary,” said Samantha Rahaim, a nurse in the hospital’s emergency department in the statement.
The MNA also said nurses at the hospital took issue with the hospital’s rationale, believing that staffing shortages are a means for hospital management to increase revenue, at the expense of patient care. The MNA said it has filed dozens of grievances with management over their failure to recruit appropriate staff in all areas of the hospital, including the maternity unit.
City Editor Jacob Vitali contributed to this report.