Hospital's birthing center to close soon

Photo of Robert Miller
The New Milford Hospital birthing center will close its doors March 23, 2013 as the result of a decision issued by the state Department of Public Health.
The New Milford Hospital birthing center will close its doors March 23, 2013 as the result of a decision issued by the state Department of Public Health.Norm Cummings

The family birthing center at New Milford Hospital is entering its final days of service.

The Western Connecticut Health Network facility received permission this week from the state Department of Public Health to close the birthing center -- nearly a year after announcing its intention to do so.

The closing means the New Milford Hospital will consolidate its birthing center with that of Danbury Hospital, about 13 miles away.

While New Milford will continue to offer prenatal, postnatal and gynecological services, women will need to have their babies at Danbury Hospital or choose another hospital.

Danbury and New Milford are managed jointly by the Western Connecticut Health Network.

The last patient at New Milford Hospital's family birthing center will be admitted no later than March 19 at noon and the center is scheduled to close March 23 at 3 p.m.

Dr. John Sussman, a New Milford OB/GYN and former chairman of the obstetrics department at the hospital, had been opposed to the closing of the birthing center from first learning of Western's plans.

"It's a sad day for the community and the hospital to lose a service that has been provided so well for so long," " Dr. Sussman said Monday.

"I only worry that other services at the hospital will follow suit despite the claims of the network so far."

Deborah Weymouth, New Milford Hospital's executive director and senior vice president of the network, acknowledged Friday closing the eight-bed center wasn't an easy decision, given its history of delivering many thousands of babies for residents of the Greater New Milford area for many decades.

"It's a sad day,'' she said. "We had a skilled staff there offering people a very high level of care. They brought passion and compassion to their work.''

Yet Ms. Weymouth said the hospital had to balance that sense of tradition with the facts of demographics and the financial realities those numbers dictate.

Birth rates in New Milford and its surrounding towns have declined, according to the documents the network submitted to the state Department of Health Care Access.

In 2008, New Milford Hospital's staff delivered 342 babies. By 2011, that was down to 264 babies.

After the hospital announced its plans to close the center in March, 2012, the number of deliveries declined to 243 for 2012.

At the same time, Ms. Weymouth said, New Milford Hospital has had to keep the birthing center staffed 24 hours a day, with three full-time workers. As a result, the center has been running a $650,000 a year deficit.

By 2015, according to projections, that deficit would have increased to $677,000.

The state health department noted the low number of deliveries at New Milford Hospital has also affected the quality of care the hospital has been able to deliver.

"Best practice for obstetrical care includes 24-hour availability of anesthesiologists and neonatal services; New Milford Hospital does not have either,'' the department's permit report states.

Danbury Hospital has a state-of-the-art neonatal intensive care unit. As a result, some women in the Greater New Milford area have already chosen to deliver their babies at Danbury Hospital.

"It's about 50 percent of our market,'' Ms. Weymouth said.

Mayor Pat Murphy was saddened to hear of the state Health Department decision, but noted it had been expected.

"If the Health Department thinks this is the safest, best route for children being born from our town," said the mayor, "it's what we have to live with."

"We're hoping we can keep the hospital open," she added, "and we knew they couldn't address every aspect of our residents needs."

Dr. Matt Kim, medical director of labor and delivery at Danbury Hospital, said the hospital will have no problem absorbing many of the deliveries that would have been scheduled for New Milford.

"We're now delivering about 1,900 babies a year,'' he said. "But five years ago, we were delivering 2,400 a year. What's happening at New Milford is emblematic of what's happening throughout the country.''

Ms. Weymouth said the March 19 admission deadline would allow women who are already scheduled to deliver their babies at New Milford Hospital to do that.

"We're trying to accommodate as many people as possible,'' she said.

Once the center closes, Ms. Weymouth said, New Milford Hospital will decide how best to use the old birthing center space.

She said some uses being considered include a wound treatment center, an outpatient physical therapy center with an emphasis on joint replacement patients, and a center for palliative and hospice care.

Ms. Weymouth said the hospital is hoping to decide on that new use within two or three months.

She also emphasized New Milford Hospital will continue all its other services.

"We are open and doing well,'' she said. "We are ready to serve the community.''

Staff writer Susan Tuz contributed to this article.; 203-731-3345