‘It’s not right’: Dozens rally outside Petaluma Valley Hospital to protest closure of obstetrics unit

Demonstrators criticize Providence for failing to operate birth center until 2025 as agreed.|

About 50 people braved wind and rain outside Petaluma Valley Hospital Monday evening to protest the effective closure of the hospital’s popular Family Birth Center by health care giant Providence.

Demonstrators on North McDowell Boulevard held signs criticizing Providence for allegedly reneging on its agreement to continue operating the birth center until 2025. Providence purchased the hospital from the Petaluma Health Care District in 2020, after district voters approved the sale.

"It's a shame that this is happening, it's not right," said Jackie Bedell, a registered nurse and vice president of the Petaluma Staff Nurse Partnership, the union that represents nurses at the hospital.

"The hospital calls it an interruption of services, but if you were to walk up there, the doors are locked and the lights are out," she said, adding that the unit is essentially closed.

Bedell said that Providence should abide by its promise to keep the unit open for at least five years. The closure, in violation of its purchase agreement, sets a bad precedent.

"They say they're going to keep other units open for 20 years," she said referring to other clauses in the purchase agreement. "Who is to say they won't break other contracts?"

Some of the signs read, "Providence, why sign contracts if you don't live by them?" and, "There is no dignity in delivering in the ER."

Providence first announced its intent to close the birth center late last year, claiming it did not have the necessary staffing and obstetrics anesthesia coverage to continue functioning safely. After months of public outcry, the health care giant announced April 11 that it had been unsuccessful in securing obstetrics anesthesia and recruiting physicians.

Providence’s chief executive in Sonoma County, Laureen Driscoll, in an email to hospital staff, referred to the closure as a “service interruption” as of May 1 “until further notice.”

On Monday, Providence issued a statement in response to the rally, noting that informational pickets are “not strikes, but they are a way for unions to inform and develop public support for their position.” The hospital operator said it had no choice but to halt obstetric services at the hospital to maintain patient safety.

“The informational picketing will have no effect on the high-quality care we provide to our patients,” Providence said in the statement. “We are maintaining our hospital services, so we do not compromise our ability to care for the patients who are counting on us.”

Critics, including hospital nurses as well as physicians at Petaluma Health Center – whose clients comprise 70% of births at Petaluma Valley Hospital – have repeatedly said Providence’s closure of the birth center will result in a “maternity desert” that spans 41 miles between Marin County and Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital.

"There are about 45 miles with no hospital to have a baby," said Denise Cobb, an OB nurse who was among those protesting.

Cobb, who said the birth center's last delivery was Friday, took a job in the hospital's pre-op unit. She said she was worried about the vacuum created by the closure.

Cheryl Negrin, a member of the district board, also attended the rally. She said she and other board members are committed to doing what they can to reopen the unit.

That includes legal action, she said.

In the weeks that preceded Monday’s closure, Petaluma Health Center moved all of its scheduled births to Memorial Hospital, according to Pedro Toledo, chief administrative officer of the health center.

Monday’s rally drew local supporters of the birth center, including mothers who had given birth at the Family Birth Center and members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers and the Petaluma Staff Nurse Partnership.

The birth center’s supporters last week called on the district, which recently changed its name to Healthy Petaluma, to seek a court injunction to prevent Providence from closing the birthing center Monday.

Ramona Faith, CEO of the newly renamed Healthy Petaluma District & Foundation, said the district is “working diligently” to find a way to reopen the birth center. Faith, in an email, said, “we aren’t able to discuss legal action at this time.”

In its statement, Providence reminded local residents that they’ll need to make other birthing plans going forward.

“As of today, May 1, 2023, there will be an interruption of OB services at PVH’s Family Birthing Center until further notice, and PVH will not provide OB services,” Providence said. “OB patients will need to seek care at their choice of alternate facilities.”

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

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