LEOMINSTER — State legislators and city officials joined dozens of protesters Monday night to bring attention to the “maternity desert” in northern Worcester County that just became a little larger.
Under the cover of what protesters say was the time of year least likely to bring attention, UMass Memorial Health decided to close the birthing center at Leominster Hospital in early July.
“I think the community still does not know why UMass is closing the birthing center at Leominster Hospital,” said State Rep. Natalie Higgins, D-Leominster, during the protest Monday evening. “It’s a very necessary and essential service to our community.”
Higgins said northern Worcester County already had an existing void of birthing centers and the closure exacerbated an already dire situation.
The protest follows the recent news from the state Department of Public Health (DPH) that “the rate of serious complications and maternal child deaths” has increased at a dramatic rate in the past 10 years, according to State Rep. Michael Kushmerek, D-Fitchburg.
“I’m infuriated with the fact they had made their decision before they ever engaged the legislative delegation,” said Kushmerek. “They never came to us expressing issues or problems with staff or with costs. They made their decision without ever engaging any of the policy makers.”
In the same 10 years the state has witnessed the growing problem with maternity care, Kushmerek said 10 different birthing centers throughout state have closed. Since 2009 over 40 hospitals or units have closed throughout the state despite the fact that, in most cases, the DPH had deemed those medical service centers “necessary for preserving access and health status in a particular service area,” according to the Massachusetts Nurses Association.
Both Kushmerek and State Rep. Meghan Kilcoyne, D-Clinton, said they have asked officials at UMass Memorial Health why they needed to close the maternity ward at Leominster Hospital and have received a different answer each time.
“They have yet to present a clear and consistent argument over why they’re closing it,” Kushmerek said. “The argument changes every day. First it was about nurse staffing, the next day it’s about doctor staffing, then it’s, ‘no, no it’s declining birth rates.’ Every time we’ve refuted that data the reason changes. They can’t keep a consistent argument which leads us to the only conclusion possible… which is that they’re doing this to help their bottom line.”
State legislators and city officials are trying to urge people who are concerned to attend a DPH hearing regarding the closure plan on July 24 at 5:30 p.m. at the Hilton Doubletree Hotel in Leominster.
“We like to talk about being a leader in women’s health and women’s issues,” said Kilcoyne. “We like to position ourselves as national leaders to protecting access to healthcare, especially those looking to start a family. All of that is a very tough pill to swallow when this announcement came down and realizing that, in our own backyard, we are dismantling women’s access to healthcare.”