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Closure of Little Rock hospital's labor and delivery unit dismays nurses

St. Vincent asked to explain move by Kat Stromquist | January 16, 2019 at 4:30 a.m.

The announced closure of CHI St. Vincent Infirmary's labor and delivery unit has angered nurses at the Little Rock hospital, who want answers about that decision's rationale, a union representative said Tuesday.

Registered nurse Paige Yates, who is president of the Office and Professional Employees International Union's local chapter, works on the unit and has been with the hospital for more than 23 years. She said staff members were notified of plans to end labor, delivery and neonatal intensive care services at a meeting Dec. 5 after hearing rumors of the transition from a nurse who works both at the hospital and at UAMS Medical Center.

"Of course there was outrage," she said. "We had no idea it was coming. ... It was very strange, and very upsetting for all of our staff and our physicians."

Staff members have been agitated both by the move's timeline, which recently shifted from March to early February, and what a news release from the union describes as "conflicting reasons" from the administration about the closure. Yates said an explanation that labor and delivery services are already well-serviced in the area doesn't make sense because the hospital offers service lines (such as cardiology, neurology and emergency services) that are duplicated by other central Arkansas facilities but are not being eliminated.

Hospital administrators' schedules couldn't accommodate interviews on Tuesday, a spokesman said. A written statement provided to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette attributed the altered timeline to "staffing limitations" as the unit winds down and employees move into other positions.

The official closing date for the unit, framed in a previous statement as part of a strategic plan meant to address trends of higher costs and lower reimbursements within the health care industry, now is set for Feb. 9.

"We prayed about and sought alternatives to discontinuing these programs," the hospital's statement said. "In the end, though, we recognized ... that we cannot continue to be all things to all people while still addressing the challenges that face the healthcare industry as a whole."

According to Yates, the decision to phase out the department formally known as Maternal Child skipped over an input-gathering process from nurses, doctors and representatives of the Diocese of Little Rock that had been typical of previous unit closures. "This current administration apparently doesn't value that," she said.

In the wake of the announcement, nurses have circulated both internal and online petitions asking for clarification about and opposing the closure. A petition posted online has gathered 195 signatures, and the internal petition collected 250 signatures, a union spokesman said.

"The closing of this department, coupled with management's ambiguity about the reason for the closing, reflects poorly on the hospital and the values it supposedly champions," the online petition said. "We deserve to know exactly why hospital administrators have decided to shutter this important department -- beyond their assertions that women's health is not a part of their so-called 'strategic plan.'"

While the roughly 65 nurses on the unit had the opportunity to bid on other positions in accordance with their union contract, Yates contends the move will be "a huge transition" and difficult for many as they move into new areas of nursing and away from delivering and caring for babies.

"Most nurses, when they're in nursing school, they have a vision of what they want to specialize in," she said. Both Yates and the hospital say some nurses plan to move to positions at other hospital systems in the region.

Several responses to a post about the unit closure on a Facebook page for the union's local chapter, which represents about 1,000 CHI St. Vincent system employees in central Arkansas, express dismay, with one commenter raising concerns about nurses and other hospital staff members who may themselves become pregnant and had planned to deliver at the unit. (The hospital is working through partnerships to ensure covered labor and delivery services for staff members, CHI St. Vincent market chief executive Chad Aduddell wrote in a December statement.)

Yates also said nurses are concerned about what the unit's closure means for existing patients, many of whom were "used to" delivering at the hospital or had gone there because they appreciated its Catholic emphasis. One recent patient began crying when she was told she wouldn't be able to deliver at the infirmary, Yates recalled.

"[Patients are] very disappointed, they're very disheartened, they don't understand it ... and we don't have a good answer for them," Yates said.

She estimates the hospital has averaged about 60-70 deliveries each month, most of which will likely be absorbed by other hospital systems such as Baptist Health and UAMS Medical Center.

UAMS Medical Center has the capacity to deliver 800 additional babies each year, media relations manager Katrina Dupins said, and some former CHI St. Vincent patients already have started scheduling appointments there. A Baptist Health spokesman said that system welcomes "new patients who would entrust us with their deliveries."

Labor and delivery services also will continue at CHI St. Vincent's Hot Springs campus, as well as in Little Rock for "those who show up at our doors in need of help," the hospital's statement said.

Business on 01/16/2019

Print Headline: Closure of Little Rock hospital's labor and delivery unit dismays nurses


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