Petaluma Valley Hospital nurses claim Providence sabotaging birth center by luring staff to other facilities
Nurses at Petaluma Valley Hospital claim hospital owner Providence is quietly carrying out plans to shutter the hospital’s beleaguered maternity ward by luring the facility’s obstetrics nurses to other hospitals it owns, including Santa Rosa Memorial.
More than half of the ward’s roster of 20 obstetrics nurses have either left to another hospital system, applied for jobs at Santa Rosa Memorial or taken a job in another unit at Petaluma Valley, according to one OB nurse.
Providence, which owns both Petaluma Valley and Santa Rosa Memorial hospitals, has stated that it wants to shutter the Petaluma maternity ward because of staffing issues and trouble securing anesthesia coverage.
Providence officials did not respond to several requests for comment Wednesday and Thursday.
The proposal to shutter the maternity unit has been rejected by the Petaluma Health Care District, which sold the facility to Providence in 2020 on the condition, among others, that the maternity ward remain open through 2025.
Critics of the proposed closure of the hospital’s popular Family Birth Center say it would create a 42-mile “maternity desert” between Marin General and Santa Rosa Memorial hospitals, putting expecting moms in south Sonoma County at risk.
“This is part of their game plan — keep running (the birth center) into the ground. I don’t know how they could win in court,” said Jim Goerlich, president of the Petaluma Staff Nurse Partnership, the union representing nurses at the hospital.
District officials say they are prepared to legally challenge any attempt to close the maternity ward before 2025. Goerlich said union representatives met with hospital administrators in late February to discuss staffing issues related to Providence’s proposal.
In a letter Goerlich sent to administrators after the meeting, he said he is “disappointed and frankly surprised the hospital is actively attempting to draw (Petaluma Valley Hospital) nurses out of our (Family Birth Center) by offering them other positions at (Santa Rosa Memorial) and (Queen of the Valley) hospitals.”
Goerlich called such job offers premature and said that they should be made only in the event that the birth center should actually close.
“Luring them to other facilities further undermines (Petaluma Valley Hospital’s) overall ability to provide our patients safe care and also undermines Providence’s legal obligation to keep (the birth center) open,” Goerlich said in his letter.
Providence proposed closing the unit late last year. Laureen Driscoll, the Northern California region chief executive for Providence, has stated that a health care staffing crisis has made it difficult to recruit obstetrics providers and anesthesia coverage for the unit.
During a Feb. 15 public meeting of the health care district, Driscoll said, “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.”
But the union insists that Providence could successfully staff the Petaluma maternity ward if it made the necessary financial investment, including offering certified nurse anesthetists more money. Former nurse anesthetists have claimed they were significantly underpaid.
Goerlich said hospital administrators claim Providence is offering Petaluma birth center staff positions at other Providence facilities because they don’t want to lose them to other hospital systems, such as Sutter Health or Kaiser Permanente.
Instead, he said, Providence is creating a “self-fulfilling” dynamic where birth center staff worried about the future of the unit are looking for work elsewhere. “The hospital could simply guarantee their positions here,” Goerlich said.
Sheri Buda, an obstetrics nurse at the birth center, said that since Providence announced that it wanted to close the facility, five of the maternity ward’s roster of 20 nurses have taken jobs at other hospitals, mainly Sutter and Kaiser.
“Five more have interviewed at (Santa Rosa) Memorial, that I know of,” Buda said. “And a few nurses have interviewed at different units in Petaluma Valley.”
Nurses, she said, are taking jobs elsewhere because “they’re scared and need to provide for their families, so they were trying to stay ahead of this — they love and support our unit, but they're like, ‘I've got to go somewhere solid, and I need to land somewhere solid.’”
Jimmy Huynh, an emergency department nurse at Petaluma Valley Hospital, said hospital administrators are starting to offer classes for certification in neonatal resuscitation, an emergency procedure given to newborns who “fresh out of the womb are not breathing.”