Good Health Care is Essential in Our Pursuit of Life, Liberty and Happiness

Stonewall – delay or block (a request, process, or person) by refusing to answer questions or 

by giving evasive replies, especially in politics.                                            

-Oxford Languages 

By Bill Powers

Recent stonewalling by employees and officials from Hartford Healthcare (HHC), Windham Hospital (WCMH), the State Office of Health Strategy (OHS), the Governor’s Office, and even Trinity College about the recent decision to “Terminate Inpatient Obstetric Services” at WCMH has regrettably been my experience while attempting to research this story. It’s as if they would like to bury the story in hopes it will simply go away and protect their interests.   

Access to affordable quality health care is essential for all of us in our pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. However, our current so called health care system is inequitable for far too many. Widespread racial, wealth and income disparities and where you may live – rule the day. What is evident is the growing number of maternity deserts as part of the closure of core healthcare services and entire hospitals in some urban and many rural areas of America. There exists an inability for many people to afford needed pharmaceuticals. There is an ever- increasing inability to provide adequate numbers of doctors, nurses and other health care professionals, as our population ages. These in addition to other critical factors (such as health care monopolies, lack of effective government initiatives and private insurance profiteering) threaten the ability of many Americans to be afforded their inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The persistent gaps in health care for people of color, women, and the economically disadvantaged often are affected by prejudice and therefore may constitute a violation of civil rights.

Leah Ralls, the President of the local Windham/Willimantic Branch of the Connecticut State Conference of the NAACP, believes “that the actions of Hartford Health Care/ Windham Hospital and Connecticut State Office of Heath Strategy’s joint final decision on December 1, 2023 to permanently close our WCMH Maternity Unit violates the civil rights for many of our neighbors who are entitled to adequate health care.” Her organization works to assure equity and justice for all. 

STONEWALLED at Trinity College –   You might be wondering how Trinity could be involved with the HHC/WCMH closing of an inpatient maternity unit. Trinity College’s President, Dr. Joanne Berger – Sweeney, is also the Chairman of HHC’s Board of Directors.  Exactly fifty years ago, I received a Master’s degree at Trinity. Any expectation that it might provide me an opportunity for at least five minutes to speak with the president turned out to be only a pipedream. Answers to a few simple questions is what was being sought: 1) How much information about the concerns of our local elected and appointed officials and residents concerning the very unpopular termination of obstetric services at WCMH was provided to the HHC Board? 2) Were they apprised of the issues and concerns raised by the people’s voices – the voices of our neighbors? 3) Did they consider allowing community input for their decision?  4) Was the HHC board decision approved before or after the abrupt closure of the maternity unit and the earlier closing of the ICU? My attempts by phone last December to schedule an interview with Berger-Sweeney were finally answered by Kristen Cole on January 2nd (who has a long title: Senior Director of Strategic Content and Media Relations). She answered in an email that: “Unfortunately, she (Berger-Sweeny) can’t pursue this opportunity.” So much for helping out a writer doing research for a story who is also an alumnus and the recipient of four national literary awards. Not yet discouraged, I contacted Jason Rojas who works as the President’s Chief of Staff and Associate Director for External Affairs (an even longer title). If his name is familiar to you, it may be because of his PART-TIME job; he is a member of the General Assembly and the Majority Leader. He said he would look into it and get back to me. After several weeks, when I had not heard back, I contacted him again, since my deadline for submission of my story for the March issue of Neighbors was approaching. When he asked for more specific information about the purpose for speaking with the president, I told him. Clearly agitated, he replied that “Being the president of Trinity and the Chairman of Hartford Health Care’s Board are not at all connected!” Somewhat insulted, and desperately working to hold back a laugh, I replied: “Do you honestly believe that if she was not Trinity’s president, she would be the chairman of the HHC Board? The connection seems pretty clear to me!”  But he would considerate it – I never heard back!


The East Region of Hartford Healthcare includes both Backus Hospital in Norwich and WCMH in Willimantic. It has its own board of directors, separate from the HHC board. After being refused an interview with the East Region’s president, I began to contact members of their board of directors. The first person I reached was the board’s chairman, a bank president, whose bank has 12 branches headquartered in Norwich. I told him I was writing a story and would like to interview him. As soon as he learned the story was about the terminated inpatient obstetric service at WCMH, he apologized and said that he was “not supposed to discuss that” and referred me to a HHC public relations contact in Hartford. None of the following members returned my calls. (I never heard back!): A wound care surgeon who according to his office works for HHC and only practices at Bachus Hospital; A retired long term human resources director for the City of Norwich; A medical internist, possibly retired; A Hartford attorney; A college professor at Quinnipiac University; and, an HHC physician working at Natchaug Hospital. Eventually, I was able to briefly penetrate the protective shell to have a conversation with a board member who resides in a Connecticut coastal community and previously taught in my graduate clinical/community psychology program. For many years, he had been an administrator with HHC and he is very positive about “the many things HHC had done to improve healthcare provided by WCMH.” He told me that “the board met three or four times a year and generally discussed issues centered around safety.” As far as learning about the “details” for who, what, when, where, and why the decision was made to terminate the inpatient maternity unit at WCMH, he referred me to the HCC East Region president. That is where I started!  So, it was back to square one and I had gone full-circle. However, I decided to take still another whack at it, because it seemed as though there definitely could be an interesting “other side” of this story to tell. In my email of January 26, 2024 to Donna Handley, senior vice president of HCC and president of the East Region, I told her that a board member referred me to her and I included 8 questions (which I had also shared with Rebecca Stewart, HHC Vice President of Media Strategy and the East Region Board Chairman). I assured president Handley: “My intention has been to gather factual information to include in my writings for a fair and balanced presentation.” I never heard back! It seems that she has placed the last stone in a barrier to provide facts from the East Region organization. It is striking that the East Region Board of HHC seems to be filled with present and former HHC employees and with others connected to Norwich, while appearing to lack adequate representation from the Windham area. 



To me, the December 1, 2023, OHS press release about the final decision to terminate obstetric services at WCMH and negotiated by OHS with WCMH/HHC continues to be incomprehensible. It purports to replace a maternity unit with a birthing center, if, after commissioning a study, WCMH/HHC still wants to do it. The unit had suddenly been closed three-and-a- half years earlier. The delays and blocking of attempts to obtain facts about the why, who, when, and where that decision was made can only be characterized as stonewalling. Most of my questions addressed to OHS are unanswered. Some have received evasive replies. For instance, “What are the names and titles of the persons who were involved in the negotiations?” –  the answer – “Attorneys and staff members.” After consulting with the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, an FOI request was made on December 14, 2023 for records of the OHS and WCMH/HHC negotiations.  Eventually, I received an answer from OHS on February 26,2024 stating: “the records requested are exempt from disclosure under FOIA for the following reasons… 1. Preliminary drafts or notes provided the public agency has determined that the public interest in withholding such documents clearly outweighs the public interest in disclosure. 2. ‘Trade secrets’ or ‘Commercial or financial information given in confidence, not required by statute.’ 3. ‘Communications privileged by the attorney-client relationship’.” This has been followed-up by a chain of verbal and written communications with the FOI Commission and Daniel Csuka, OHS staff attorney and hearing officer, about challenging this decision by way of an appeal. (On March 26, 2024, as I was proofing this story for submission to NEIGHBORS, Mr. Csuka agreed to a meeting during the first week of April to discuss in more detail the reasons OHS denied my complaint.) My questions include: how the interests of our abandoned local moms and newborns were represented in the process; what evidence was presented at hearings in defense of the patients who would suffer limitations and possible irreversible harm from the OSH decision; and, were violations of civil rights considered? Can’t OHS redact “trade secrets” and unrelated “financial information”? Whose attorney-client privileged communications are being addressed – those of HHC or OHS? Were the issues expressed by our local government officials who intensely voiced their concerns against the injustice, lack of transparency and absence of community involvement by HHC taken into consideration as evidence?    


I have previously written in Neighbors that local elected officials have discussed their concerns over the termination of obstetrical services at WCMH directly with the governor and lieutenant governor. The final decision to do so, after it was abruptly closed years earlier, was made by “OHS Executive Director Deidre S. Gifford. She retained ultimate decision-making authority” (OHS communication). On February 6, 2024, Julia Bergman, Communications Director for the Office of the Governor, wrote me that: “Dr. Gifford in her role as Executive Director of OHS, serves also as the Senior Advisor for Health and Human Services to Governor Lamont. She reports to Governor Lamont. Governor Lamont is strongly supportive of Dr. Gifford’s work to increase health care access and reduce healthcare costs for Connecticut residents.” Bergman was responding to my January 18, 2024, email requesting the organizational relationship between Gifford and Lamont (after OHS failed to respond) and who assesses Gifford’s performance, and a description of the process. You’ll notice that Bergman only addressed the first part. When I requested the missing information, she replied on February 6th: “I will get you info about the evaluation process. I would not make any assumptions. I am not positive that there is a formal evaluation process for the commissioners but I want to confirm that.” On March 15th I requested the information again and asked for her source when she provides it. I never heard back! 


The stonewalling I have experienced by so many is remarkable. So many have declined to talk about the details of how and why Windham Community Memorial Hospital was allowed to terminate its inpatient obstetric services. It is questionable that such a strange final decision was negotiated by the OHS executive director, Deidre S. Gifford. Fortunately,  It has been refreshing to talk with the dedicated members from Windham United to Save Our Health Care (WUSH) as well as local elected and appointed officials from our area towns who continue to be advocates for quality health care for all of our neighbors, while thankfully providing useful and factual information.

My interviews with six state representatives and our state senator from this area were informative explanatory and actually revitalizing. I had gone in with a certain mind set – As our representatives, how could they stand by and allow WCMH/HCC to get away with this? They were all aware of the situation at WCMH and all, regardless of political party, voiced concern. It was a relief that they all spoke freely about their perceptions of how it came to be. They spoke of the difficulties related to being only part-time legislators contrasted to the full-time presence of the executive branch and its comparatively more and extensive capacity. Many spoke of the extraordinary clout of the health care lobby in the state, often mentioning the Connecticut Hospital Association.  It was stated that Hartford Health Care, in particular, has been able through its cadre of attorneys to purposely complicate and delay action by the state. All but one voiced the opinion that further legislative action will be necessary to neutralize the influence of certain health care organizations in the public’s interest. Some suggested that federal funding will most likely be necessary in order to preserve and continue the operation of smaller rural healthcare providers. All seemed to agree that good and accessible healthcare is essential for everyone.

Bill Powers is a retired teacher, healthcare provider and administrator.

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