No more babies to be born at Sonoma Valley Hospital after October
The Sonoma Valley Health Care District board voted Wednesday to close the hospital’s obstetrics department as a cost-cutting move, despite the entreaties of a standing-room-only crowd.
The board voted 4-1 to close the department, which is expected to sustain a half-million-dollar loss in the fiscal year 2018 and has seen a 35 percent drop in births since 2015.
The closure was the only issue addressed by the board at the meeting.
But the vocal crowd of about 50 people – including pregnant women, newborns, toddlers, expectant dads, nurses and doctors – won a small victory. Instead of closing in September 30 as originally proposed, the board voted to close the department Oct. 31.
“I wish the financial realities of reimbursement and politics and running a hospital in the Bay Area, where costs are outrageously high, were different,” said board chair Joshua Rymer. “These are hard realities. I say this with huge sorrow in my heart, but I don’t see a way for us to maintain this service in the face of that.”
The hospital’s revenue was $59 million in the fiscal year 2018, with a $3 million net income loss, according to unaudited numbers supplied to the Index-Tribune by the hospital on Tuesday.
There were 218 births in the obstetrics department in the fiscal year 2010, dropping to 148 in the fiscal year 2015 and 111 in the fiscal year 2018. This drop in the birth rate is part of a national trend.
The board was initially scheduled to also consider closing the hospital’s skilled nursing department, but Mather and Rymer Tuesday decided to postpone that vote to get more input from staff, doctors and residents. The board also postponed a budget discussion that was initially on the agenda.
The meeting took place in the basement of the hospital instead of the customary location at the City Council Chambers because the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission was meeting in the Council Chambers.
About 20 people addressed the board, some of them with babies in arms, against a constant background of babbling and gurgles from the infants and toddlers in attendance. Among the standees were nurses from the obstetrics department, one of them briefly cradling a baby she helped deliver.
Nearly every speaker opposed closing the department.
“It is the wrong decision. You are taking the Birthplace away from the vulnerable,” said Rachael Hairston of Sonoma, who addressed the board while holding her infant daughter, Helen Loveridge.
The Birthplace has three private suites for labor, birthing and recovery, and five postpartum rooms, staffed by obstetric nurses.
Several speakers referenced the $250 parcel tax approved by Sonoma voters in 2017. The parcel tax promised $3.85 million a year for the next five years. One speaker described the closing as a “bait and switch.”
In an earlier communique to the community, Mather said that the parcel tax was not intended by itself to make the hospital sustainable.
Rather, she said, the parcel tax is needed to supplement State and Federal insurance payments, mainly Medicare and Medi-Cal, which are below the cost of providing hospital services, and keep the emergency room going.
Kate Knight of Sonoma questioned the effectiveness of the hospital’s marketing of the obstetrics department.
“I know women in Sonoma who drove to Santa Rosa to have babies because they didn’t know about Dr. Amara,” she said, referring to the department’s beloved obstetrician-gynecologist Dr. Paul Amara, as did many of the speakers.