Hospital shutters labor & delivery

Published 6:54 pm Friday, April 1, 2011

Babies born at Bryan W. Whitfield Memorial Hospital through April could be among the last.

In February of last year five obstetrics doctors each agreed to take a 12 percent pay cut to preserve the program. Nearly 14 months later, that did not prove to be the lifeline for which hospital administrators had hoped.

The hospital board elected Thursday to close its labor and delivery department effective within the next 30 to 60 days.

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“We can’t continue to operate from a financial perspective,” hospital CEO Mike Marshall said. “It’s really nobody’s fault.”

Marshall said the facility delivered slightly more than 250 babies last year. However, that figure fell far short of the numbers needed to support the department.

“We need between 700 and 800 deliveries based on our cost structure to break even,” he said. “It’s really nobody’s fault. We just don’t have the population mass to continue to operate it.”

While the cuts may ultimately plug a cash leak, the doctors who provide the services fear for the worst.

“A lot of people already don’t have the money to go to prenatal care, and now they’ll have to go an hour or hour and a half away to get it,” said Dr. Ronnie Chu, a local family physician who delivered more than 60 babies at the hospital last year. “These people will still turn to the hospital for care. They’ll go to the (Emergency Room). They do that now.”

Marshall noted that current ER staff are certified to deliver babies and were equipped to safely administer care to mother and arriving-child.

“We do it now,” Marshall said of delivering babies in the emergency room. “All our ER doctors have the ability to deliver babies.”

Chu said with an active labor and delivery department, the hospital could contact any one of its affiliated doctors to administer care to the mother and baby. With that department closed, he said, that would not be an option.

Marshall said, in light of the cut, ER staff – particularly nurses – will undergo additional training in obstetrics.

Also among Chu’s concerns were the patients already weeks and months into a prenatal care program.

“What about all the pregnant ladies who are right now pregnant,” he said. “We have patients from Thomasville, to Uniontown, Livingston, Greensboro…all over…all come to this area.”

Marshall noted that while the hospital saw only a handful of expectant mothers seek care outside of Demopolis, the volume of those who could afford the care was a critical financial blow.

“About 80 percent of the babies we delivered were funded by Medicaid,” Marshall said, “and they pay less than it costs to provide the service.”

The cut puts the jobs of 11 hospital and nursing staff employees in jeopardy. Marshall said he was hopeful labor and delivery personnel could be relocated within the hospital to fill existing needs in other departments or transition into jobs at other hospitals.

“We have some vacancies across the hospital and we’ve encouraged the staff to apply for those positions,” he said.

In the meantime, Marshall advised expectant mothers to continue to work with their doctors and assured them labor and delivery services would be provided for as long as possible. Also, Marshall said the hospital would aggressively advertise the official closing date once it is known.

“We’re not going to shut it down tomorrow,” he said. “We’ll take a look at the scheduled deliveries, look to see what volume is coming in and what their anticipated delivery dates are and we’ll work to firm up a date to close from there. And when we decide, we’ll communicate that with the doctors in plenty of time for them to accommodate their patients.”

The hospital will also work with Medicaid agencies to help their patients find proper care.