Hospital board votes to keep labor and delivery open

Published 1:17 pm Thursday, April 25, 2013

Bryan W. Whitfield Memorial Hospital’s board voted to keep its labor and delivery unit open after an almost four-hour long meeting Thursday.

“We are going to try to do everything we can to keep it open, while we continue to work on mid-range and long-term solutions,” said hospital CEO Mike Marshall said. “There are no short-term solutions, they are going to be long-term in nature. We are going to have to have the continued support of our board, medical staff, government leaders and the community to help us be able to do that.”

At a meeting earlier this month, Marshall said the hospital was losing $400,000 to $500,000 per year on labor and delivery.

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The losses come from the high percentage of births that are Medicaid or indigent care.

“It’s gotten harder and harder to support programs that have high Medicaid or indigent populations,” Marshall said. “(Concerning Medicaid), we get paid less than our cost providing the service.”

To make matters worse, Marshall said labor and delivery was one area where “you can’t flex your staffing” to cut expenses in that nurses have to be ready to deliver at anytime.

Marshall said the hospital has about $60 million in annual revenue compared to $28 million in expenses, but that the labor and delivery alone make up $1 million of those costs.

In 2008, 361 babies were born at Whitfield. That number was down to 225 last year and is trending to be around 218 this year.

Marshall said if Whitfield keeps labor and delivery open from what he calls a “community capital standpoint” than the hospital must make money somewhere else.

“You are never going to support labor and delivery through volume,” he said.

The sequester cuts that went into effect April 1 will also cost the hospital $250,000 if left in effect for a full year, and there are also many lingering questions about the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare, Marshall said.

“There’s just a lot of uncertainty out there over something we have no control over,” he said.

One thing people can do to help though is to use their hometown hospital, Marshall said.

“Use your local hospital,” Marshall said. “Or there is going to come a time when you aren’t going to have your local hospital.”

The board heard from several doctors, nurses and community members, all who supported keeping labor and delivery open, prior to going into executive session to discuss the issue.

Jeanette Allen has been a labor and delivery nurse at Whitfield since 1981. She said to close the unit would be “doing the city of Demopolis a disservice.”

“These ladies are going to drive at least 60 miles to have a baby. You know babies come at night — they have no certain time. You can’t tell them to come … they just show up,” Allen said. “You are going to have babies being delivered at home. You are going to have babies being delivered on the side of the highway. You are going to have havoc; you are going to have chaos.”

Board member Judy Travis made a motion after Allen’s comments to keep the unit open, but it failed to gain a second at the time.

Barbara Sessions from the Pregnancy Center of West Alabama said the young women her organization helps are worried about where they will have their babies if the unit closes.

“I’m here to represent the people who have no choice. The girls have come to us and said, ‘What are we going to do?’” Sessions said. “Most of them can’t even get the transportation to get to us. They don’t have anyone to bring them. These people need this hospital.”

Several women in attendance said they gave birth to their children at Whitfield.

“I’m adamantly against closing labor and delivery. I had my babies here. My children had their babies here,” said Mary Jo Martin. “We have the opportunity to be the best hospital in a 50-mile radius. I think we need to do everything (to keep labor and delivery) because some people don’t have a choice. And I’m for the underdog.”

Realtor Barbara Myers said it doesn’t’ send a good impression to young couples moving to Demopolis to tell them they can’t have their children here.

“Perception in a small town is major,” Myers said.

Dr. Ronnie Chu told the board that he has recruited a new physician that will start in September who specializes in high-risk labor. He asked the board to give her a chance to be successful.

“A lot of women would like to have a female to deliver their babies,” said Chu. “Let her try.”