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NUHW members help lead fight to save acclaimed birthing center

NUHW members at Petaluma Valley Hospital joined with their nurse colleagues on February 15 for a rally to save the hospital’s acclaimed birthing center from closure. After the rally, the workers attended a meeting of the Petaluma Health Care District during which board members made their opposition to the closure clear to Providence executives.

“My trust is gone, I can’t trust you at all,” Board Member Cheryl Negrin told Providence executive Laureen Driscoll, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported.

Board Vice President Elece Hempel objected to Providence’s call for collaboration in closing the maternity unit and hinted that the board could retake control of the hospital if Providence proceeds with the closure.

“That’s collaboration,” Hempel said, according to the paper. “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 the hospital comes back to the district.”

The rally and subsequent meeting were also covered by the North Bay Bohemian, Petaluma Argus-Courier and Northern California Public Media.

Providence is one of the biggest hospital operators in the North Bay, with hospitals in Santa Rosa, Napa, Healdsburg, and Petaluma. Providence’s agreement to purchase Petaluma Valley Hospital from the public hospital district in 2021 included a provision to keep the birthing center open for a minimum of five years, through 2025. However, last month, Providence informed the district’s elected board of directors that it planned to close the birthing center within months, claiming it couldn’t recruit new doctors or secure anesthesia services.

Opposition to Providence’s effort to close the only maternity ward between Marin County and Santa Rosa has been spearheaded by hospital employees represented by NUHW and the Petaluma Staff Nurse Partnership. The two unions also held rallies in 2020, calling on the district to require Providence to keep the maternity ward open indefinitely as a condition for purchasing the hospital instead of only for five years as required under the purchase agreement.

“Bringing babies into the world isn’t a big money-maker for hospital chains like Providence, but it shouldn’t have to be,” Patricia Lopez, a nursing assistant at Petaluma Valley Hospital said in 2020. “It’s an essential service of any community hospital — a service that Petaluma needs and that Providence can easily afford to provide.”

Providence has $10 billion in cash reserves and has netted $1.38 million profit at Petaluma Valley since buying the hospital at the beginning of 2021, according to reports filed with the state.

In 2020, Newsweek ranked Petaluma Valley Hospital as one of the nation’s top maternity hospitals, and its 10.8 percent cesarean delivery rate is about one-third the statewide average, according to the health care district officials.

Workers will continue efforts to make Providence honor its agreement to keep the birthing center open at least through 2025 and warned that its closure would put women and babies at risk.

“A maternity ward is an essential community service that Providence can easily afford,” said Stephanie Aguilar, an emergency room registration clerk. “Without our birthing center, deliveries will occur in unsafe and inappropriate locations like our emergency room, which is already overburdened and understaffed.”

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