We Need Broader Public Input and Creative Collaboration to Save Maternity Ward

UPDATE -- JULY 24 -- The conversation about the future of maternity services at Sharon Hospital took a healthy step forward tonight thanks to a meeting of the Sharon Board of Selectmen, but the community must continue to insist on a seat at the table as we move forward.
 
Attended by Sharon Hospital President Peter Cordeau, Herbert and Lydia Moore, the organizers of Save Sharon Hospital, and about 20 members of the public, the community expressed its strong interest in continuing to provide safe and reliable maternity services for everyone in our region, and asked questions both about how we got here, and, more importantly, how we move forward.
 
Cordeau announced that he had been provided with a schedule from Sharon OB/GYN for maternity service coverage through August, and that he had been told there would soon be a schedule for the rest of the year. That could enable the unit to remain open during that period, which would be welcome news for expectant mothers and the community as a whole. It also allows time for creative solutions to come to the fore.

Other rural communities have faced hard choices caused by declining populations and some have found the right combination of resources, both public and private, to draft unique solutions that work to provide vital services for residents in a sustainable way. Now is the time to look for these collaborative options for Sharon Hospital. 
 
It became clear from Cordeau's comments that many negotiations have taken place over the past year between Health Quest, the nonprofit that purchased Sharon Hospital, and Sharon OB/GYN Associates, the private practice of doctors, concerning the future of maternity services. But these discussions have not included other stakeholders in the broader community, such as, for example, local nonprofits engaged in public health, healthcare professionals with relevant expertise, or members of the public who have been blindsided by recent decisions. If we are going to tackle the very real challenges we face, it is time to widen that lens, bring other people to the table, and take a broader look at how maternity services are provided here, and whether there might be other models we should consider. 
 
The process begins with more transparency and sincere engagement with the community. Given the way in which information has been provided to the public (or not) in the past several weeks, the community has lost some trust in Health Quest. Cordeau’s willingness to attend tonight’s meeting and answer questions directly and straightforwardly was a helpful step in the right direction. I hope there will be further opportunities for the conversation to continue, and applaud the Sharon Selectmen – Brent Colley, Jessica Fowler, and Dale Jones – for their efforts to open the conversation at their public meeting and to get answers on behalf of the community. I also look forward to any future hearings held by the state’s Office of Health Strategy as it considers requests from Health Quest to purchase Western Connecticut Health Network, or to formally close down maternity services.


 Photo by Christopher Little

Photo by Christopher Little

Calling for Community Action to Express Concern Over Closing Maternity Ward At Sharon Hospital

UPDATE -- JULY 14 - At a rally organized by #SaveSharon Hospital, many speakers expressed their concerns about Heath Quest's decision to close the maternity ward at Sharon Hospital without first seeking public input. Here was the main message I took from the rally: Sharon Hospital is an integral part of our community and we are committed to keeping it as a full-service health care provider for our families.

I was honored to be asked to address the rally. You can see my remarks on YouTube


State Should Hold Public Hearings to determine basic facts

UPDATE -- JULY 13 - Thanks to our strong public outcry about Health Quest’s plans to shut down Sharon Hospital’s maternity ward, Connecticut officials are taking notice and productive conversations among Health Quest and other stakeholders have begun. It is still far from certain how long Health Quest will keep the maternity ward open and there are many questions that need answers.
 
CT Attorney General George Jepsen told me today that he is aware of the controversy. He confirmed that his office is in conversation with local non-profits about the charitable funds invested in Sharon Hospital. Those funds were provided to help support health care in our local community. As one official in Jepsen's office said, “We always have jurisdiction to protect public funds."
 
The official was referring to the $3 million in charitable funds – and the additional $6 million pledged – by the non-profit Foundation for Community Health (FCH) to assist Health Quest in its purchase of Sharon Hospital last year. There is no legal way to guarantee that those funds will be used to provide maternity services, however. Health Quest has invested several million dollars into Sharon Hospital since its purchase and could argue that its own investment and the FCH funding has gone to support local health care.
 
So now we need to take another step. We need to press Health Quest to be more open about its priorities for our community hospital, so that we as a community can begin to address the challenges directly, and bring all of our resources to bear. We can do this very publicly by attending the rally scheduled for Saturday at 11 a.m. on the Sharon Green. Details here.
 
We can also call for help from Connecticut’s Office of Health Strategy (OHS), which is responsible for the administration and enforcement of the regulatory documents that Health Quest needs to submit regarding Sharon Hospital. OHS has the authority to call for public hearings on this issue. We should encourage it to do so. We need to make clear that we are committed to our community hospital continuing to provide a full spectrum of high-quality medical care for the residents of our region. 
 
The fight to keep the maternity ward open at Sharon Hospital is, at the core, a fight about access to health care. Rural health care in particular is expensive to deliver and complicated, so it should not surprise us that Health Quest might try to get out of that business. There is evidence to suggest, however, that Health Quest is not losing money providing this service. Rather, it is just not making enough to satisfy its financial ambitions. That changes the conversation.
 
For those who argue that the unfettered free market is wise and will produce the best and most efficient result, this is the natural result:  business lines that are not as profitable get shut down.  It’s what happens when government “gets out of the way.”
 
But health care is not a purely private business.  It is a public good, and for that reason, government has an important role to play, and we, the citizens, need to be sure it’s doing its part. 
 
I know first-hand that rural health care is costly.  At Women’s Support Services, we are proud to be one of only two remaining non-profits in the region that provide free counseling in our rural area. Periodically we’re asked whether it wouldn’t be more efficient to consolidate with a bigger group in another area. The answer is yes, if you only care about the cost of the services. But the answer is a resounding NO if you care about the fact that a victim might have to wait for an hour for a counselor to arrive at the hospital, or drive for 45 minutes to get to a group counseling meeting.  Efficient for whom?  The public interest matters.
 
As we fight to keep resources and services in our area, we’re going to have to be creative and collaborative, and make savvy use of all the levers we have. I hope you can join me and other members of the community for a rally on the Sharon Green on Saturday, July 14 at 11:00 a.m. and focus on collective action to preserve health care access in our community. #SaveSharonHospital 


Sharon Hospital Struggle Reminds Us To Unite As A Community

UPDATE -- JULY 4 - The still unfolding situation at Sharon Hospital over the past week provides an important opportunity to reflect on who we aspire to be as a community. In small towns like ours in the Northwest Corner, community is not an abstract concept: it’s what makes a 10-minute trip to the post office take an hour because we run into so many neighbors and friends along the way. Our success is tied to one another’s. If we want our community to thrive, we need to be a place where families can put down roots and feel supported. That can be tricky in tough times - all the more reason we need to listen to one another, understand our individual and common interests, collaborate, and take action together. 

Businesses in the community, including medical providers, need to be sustainable if they’re going to continue to employ and fairly compensate their employees who live and work here. Some business, including rural hospitals like Sharon Hospital, aren't purely private businesses, however, as their health directly affects the health of the entire community. That’s where good government and civic leaders should play a role - ensuring that profits aren’t the only factor in making decisions that affect us all, and that commitments, particularly those made by bigger, more powerful players to smaller, rural ones, are kept.   

On Independence Day, it’s good to remember that moment when a group of citizens, armed with a set of principles, stood up against powers who took them for granted. With that in mind, they crafted a government filled with protections for smaller, often rural, interests from larger, more powerful ones. Picking up those tools and using them to improve and protect our community is the most patriotic thing we can do.  
 


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State AG Should Investigate Health Quest Plan to Close Sharon Hospital Maternity Ward
 

JULY 2 -- Over the last few days, Health Quest (whose purchase of Sharon Hospital was approved in early 2017) has abruptly signaled its intention to close the maternity ward at Sharon Hospital. The doctors and nurses directly involved learned late last week that the unit would be closed as early as July 24. As late as 10:30 this morning, hospital staff members were informed that the ward would be closed at a “date to be determined.” The nurses in the ward were given exit interviews on Friday.

Many expectant mothers learned about this on social media, and there is still no public written statement from Health Quest explaining the decision or its rationale. There was no community outreach or discussion preceding this significant decision. 

When Health Quest purchased Sharon Hospital, the acquisition was approved by the state subject to a Certificate of Need (CON) in which Health Quest made a series of explicit commitments to both Sharon Hospital and to our community. One of those promises was that they would not close existing services at Sharon Hospital for at least three years. This abrupt closure seems to violate that commitment, so I am calling for the state's Attorney General to investigate.   

Maintaining high-quality health care in rural communities like the Northwest Corner requires solving complex problems. It’s challenging, but we have significant and dedicated resources, including hospitals, medical professionals, and nonprofits dedicated to community health. 

Our local community, led by the Foundation for Community Health (FCH), has demonstrated its willingness to provide precious community resources to support the development of solutions for Sharon Hospital. As evidence of this, FCH provided $3 million of grant funding to Health Quest for the acquisition of Sharon Hospital and up to $6 million earmarked for the needs of Sharon Hospital. If Health Quest would openly address concerns over how best to support women’s health in the Northwest Corner, I am certain a productive conversation could begin. 

We urgently need to get to the bottom of this, and support our local community in getting access to information from Health Quest to understand the full context of the decision. In that way, we can (1) have the opportunity to explore potential solutions in collaboration with Sharon Hospital and other stakeholders, including FCH and community representatives, to develop quality women’s healthcare services on a financially sustainable basis, and (2) hold Health Quest accountable for its commitments to our community.  

The Attorney General’s investigation into this matter at Sharon Hospital has larger implications for the State of Connecticut than just the 64th district. Health Quest has announced its intention to merge with the Western Connecticut Healthcare Network to create a vast network serving 1.5 million people across two states. Health Quest's integrity, transparency, and commitment to its communities could have implications for a wide swath of citizens in Connecticut.

Tomorrow morning at 6:20 am, Peter Cordeau, the president of Sharon Hospital, will be speaking with Marshall Miles on WHDD Robin Hood radio to address the situation.  I will be on Marshall's show on Robin Hood radio at 7:20 am.  I hope you can tune in. Feel free to contact me with questions and I will communicate with you on what I learn. 

Thank you,
Maria