Health district blasts plans to close Petaluma Valley Hospital’s birth center after contentious meeting

“My trust is gone, I can’t trust you at all,” one board member told Providence officials.|

Members of the Petaluma Health Care District on Wednesday rejected a proposal that would permanently close the popular maternity ward at Petaluma Valley Hospital.

The plan is being floated by Providence, which purchased the hospital from the district in 2021. The health care giant says it cannot safely operate the ward because of difficulty staffing the unit with obstetrics and anesthesia professionals.

But district board members, during a public meeting Wednesday evening that at times became contentious, said they thought not enough was being done to preserve the birth center and that closing it would violate the terms of the 2020 purchase agreement. Under that agreement, Providence must keep the birth center open until 2025.

Following a closed session, the board reported that it did not approve Providence’s proposal to close the birth center. The district asked Providence for more collaboration and also appointed an ad hoc committee to explore ways to keep the center open.

“The information presented does not evidence meaningful efforts to date to solve the lack of anesthesia services, and there is reason to believe more work can be done to solve the future lack of service,” the district stated after its closed session.

Providence proposed closing the unit late last year. Laureen Driscoll, Northern California region chief executive for Providence, attended the meeting Wednesday to respond to questions from the district regarding the plan.

For much of the meeting, Driscoll appeared bothered by the line of questioning from district directors and the public and became increasingly defensive. At one point, she objected to being videotaped by a Press Democrat reporter.

District Board President Crista Nelson reminded Driscoll that the meeting was a public forum.

“Am I being videotaped, seriously?” she said before being told by district representatives that it was a public meeting.

“Really, by a public person, I’m allowed to be videotaped? I understand the Zoom but somebody individually I’m allowed to be videotaped,” Driscoll said.

Moments earlier, the Providence executive insisted that patient safety was Providence’s main priority.

“I care very much about the programs and the staff, which is why I’ve asked to engage in a collaborative process,” she said. “Because by not allowing me to close this program, which I cannot staff safely, will cause interrupted service and care for patients, which I feel is way more threatening to the health and welfare of the community members than having a consistently staffed service. We are in a health care crisis at this moment for staffing, globally.”

Board vice president Elece Hempel objected to Providence’s call for collaboration in closing the maternity unit. She emphasized that many in the local health care community were willing to work to help keep it open.

“That's collaboration,” Hempel said. “Coming in and saying on this day this system is closing is a violation of the contract. If you read the details of the contract, a violation of that contract means that hospital comes back to the district.”

Board member-at-large Cheryl Negrin delivered some of the strongest comments during the meeting. Negrin described Providence’s stance on the matter of saving the unit as “negative.” She directed her statements to Driscoll.

“My trust is gone, I can’t trust you at all,” Negrin said.

During the meeting, Driscoll insisted that Providence had done, and continues to do everything possible to staff the birth center. She objected to the line of questioning.

“If you want to engage with us in a different way, I’m happy to do that,” she said. “But this is not the tone and tenor in which I plan to respond.”

Negrin said she understood, but wanted to know “why there has been no compassion or empathy” for what would happen in the community if the birth center closed.

Providence on Thursday declined to respond to inquiries about what it plans to do following the district’s rejection of its closure proposal.

Before the meeting started at 6 p.m., supporters of the birth center gathered at North McDowell Boulevard and Old Redwood Highway to protest the proposed closure. Those attending the rally included Petaluma physicians, nurse midwives and obstetric nurses and mothers who had delivered their babies at the birth center.

Denise Cobb, a registered nurse who has worked in the obstetrics unit at the hospital for a quarter century, questioned Providence’s efforts to fully staff the unit. “They can’t find anesthesia for the price they want to pay.”

Lia Goldman Miller, a Petaluma mom, held a sign that said in Spanish, “No one wants to give birth on the roadway.” Goldman Miller, whose two children were home births, said she used the Petaluma hospital birth center as a backup, in case of complications with her two pregnancies.

“When you want to give birth at home, that’s a wonderful choice,” she said. “But nobody wants to give birth on the side of the road. That’s not a choice. That’s scary.”

Several people at the rally pointed out that closing the hospital birth center would create a “maternity desert,” an area with no labor and delivery services, that would span the region from Marin General to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital — nearly 42 miles apart.

Dr. Milana PeBenito, a Petaluma family physician who delivers babies at the birth center, recalled her first weekend on call in late-October 2019, when the Kincaid Fire forced the closure of local maternity wards.

“All of the labor and delivery units in Santa Rosa were evacuated,” she said. “We were the closest place. I delivered a bunch of Kaiser patients that weekend.”

Caitlin Jack, an obstetrics nurse in the birth center, said she moved up from San Jose a year-and-a-half ago to Petaluma after interviewing with both Kaiser Permanente and Sutter Health hospitals in Santa Rosa. She said she preferred the Petaluma birth center’s model of integrating labor, delivery, recovery and postpartum care.

“The unit is self-contained,” she said. “You’ll have one nurse from admission to discharge.”

Sheri Buda, another obstetrics nurse at the birth center, said the facility more than deserves the high praise it often gets in the local birthing community.

“We could make a lot more money working at another local hospital and we choose to be here,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or On Twitter @pressreno.

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