By Bill Powers
On December 1, 2023, I received an email from the Connecticut State Office of Health Strategy (OHS) that was startling and shocking. It consisted of a December 1st Press Release titled “Office of Health Strategy and Windham Hospital Agree To Study Birthing Center/Enhance Women’s Healthcare As Part Of Agreed Settlement.” In addition to significant contradiction, it also contained important misinformation or possibly disinformation depending upon the intensions of OHS. At face value a birthing center sounds like something that is encouraging and constructive just as nationally and in Windham County there are real concerns about infant mortality rates. Infant mortality is the measure of how many babies die before they reach their first birthday. Nationally, the infant mortality rate rose by 3 % in 2022 based on data released in 2023. It was the largest increase in two decades according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Infant health has been a staple of public health from the beginnings of modern medicine. Today infant mortality is a strategic priority of public health.
There continues to be an urgent need to support moms before, during and after birth and there is no question about that. Unfortunately, the OHS Press Release is troublesome in striking ways. It also provides a link to an eight page “Agreed Settlement” revealing that OHS is actually talking about the “Project Titled: Termination of Inpatient Obstetric Services”, which incredibly has nothing to do with birthing centers. Curiously, the Press Release informs that “The Office of Health Strategy has rendered a FINAL DECISION by way of an Agreed Settlement in Hartford Healthcare’s Windham Community Memorial Hospital Certificate of Need application. The settlement approves the request to terminate the hospital’s inpatient obstetric services if Windham studies the need for and feasibility of a birthing center and agrees to operate one if needed.” Those are two “if(s)” worthy of attention. That is because the discussion is for a “final decision” that has been negotiated on Windham Hospital’s application to end inpatient obstetric services. In actuality the services ended three-and-one half years ago, when Windham Hospital/Hartford Health Care (HHC) abandoned our local moms and newborns.
Clearly, the Press Release astonishingly proposes that a birthing center can somehow substitute for Windham Hospital’s inpatient maternity services. A birthing center can be a good idea for women with expected low-risk births. It is not a full-service institution for situations where moms and newborns are at risk, or when complications arise. It has been advised that a hospital inpatient obstetric service be located in its vicinity for required interventions for optimal outcomes for both mom and newborn. (“Healthy Moms. Strong Babies” – March of Dimes)
It is also astonishing that the Office of Health Strategy would allow Windham Hospital to plan a birthing center with no hospital inpatient maternity service in the vicinity of Windham/Willimantic or several other towns. Currently, the one nationally accredited birthing center in Connecticut is located in Danbury, Connecticut Childbirth and Women’s Center, and is located literally across the street from and therefore clearly in the vicinity of Danbury Hospital with inpatient maternity services. It seems the OHS somehow accepts the Windham Hospital/ Hartford Health Care definition of “vicinity” (whatever it is) for transporting maternity patients, not across the street or even across town, but all the way to Norwich. This creates a multiplicity of risks, problems, concerns and issues for women and their newborns, especially women in labor who may develop emergent complications.
What is probably the most astonishing and confusing thing presented in the December 1, 2023, OHS press release is it purported that “OHS has rendered a Final Decision by way of an Agreed Settlement in Hartford Health Care’s Windham Community Memorial Hospital, Inc. Certificate of Need (CON) application.” Recalling that the CON involves the “Termination of Inpatient Obstetric Services” at Windham Community Memorial Hospital”, how on Earth can the settlement “approve the request to terminate the hospital’s inpatient obstetric services if and when Windham studies the need for and feasibility of a birthing center and agrees to operate one if needed,” when in the meantime the Windham Hospital/HHC has already stopped its Labor and Delivery services and did so back in June of 2020? The ifs beg the question that a FINAL DECISION was reached. A final decision should not have been negotiated by OHS with those conditions.
How has Windham Hospital/HHC gotten away with abandoning our moms and their newborns for so long without first obtaining required approvals? Was there illegal or unethical collusion between OHS and Hartford Health Care by some at some level? How powerful have health care monopolies and the Connecticut Hospital Association become in the shortchanging of the heath care needs of certain groups of Connecticut residents? Why haven’t my state senator and the state representatives from our region assured that the diversity, equity, and inclusion of residents in our region are respected and why have they failed to check the health care monopolies who simply acquire more and more power? Is the abandonment of local moms and newborns by my elected officials and the Office of Health Strategy as well as HHC merely the latest example of closing down local health services? Perhaps it represents just the of the tip of the iceberg! I expect my state elected and appointed officials to be a voice for their constituents and those who are voiceless by circumstance. When I asked OHS about “who their negotiators were”- the OHS response was simply: “Various OHS Staff and attorneys were involved in the settlement negotiations.” Also, I asked, “Why work a deal with Hartford Health Care for a birthing center when the pre and postnatal services are already offered at Windham Hospital?” The OHS response was “Although OHS was confident in the PDF’s findings of fact and conclusions of law, Executive Director Deidre S. Gifford retained ultimate decision-making authority and was free to accept or reject the PDF based on her own review of the CON record.” Why weren’t the Commissioner of Public Health, the Commissioner of the Office For Early Childhood as well as the Office of the Child Advocate involved? Sounds to me like Gifford should be held accountable for a terrible decision favoring Hartford Health Care while abandoning our moms and their newborns.
Local moms and infants cannot be abandoned and should not continue to be bullied by Connecticut’s health care hypocrites and thugs.
note: bold and italicized words were mine for emphasis. – BP
a final note: To date trying to obtain answers to my questions for this story from OHS have been difficult and slow to obtain, and mostly incomplete. A freedom of information request has been filed. The spokesman for Windham hospital has not answered any of my questions simply referring me to the original OHS press release, which I already had. He stated, “At this time, all of the information I have is in the (press) release.” I immediately asked if could expect to have my questions answered and there has been no response. He was referred to me by the office of HHC’s Senior Vice President and East Region President, Donna Handley. There is much more to this story and I hope that by the March Issue of Neighbors there will be a second episode worthy of your time.
Bill Powers is a former teacher, counselor and health care administrator
By Bill Powers