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Fighting to save birthing services in Petaluma

NUHW members are standing united with their registered nurse colleagues to make Providence, the largest hospital chain on the West Coast, reopen the birthing center at Petaluma Valley Hospital.

More than 50 workers at the hospital walked picket lines, chanting “Keep OB Open” during a protest on May 1, the day that Providence shuttered the Petaluma Valley’s birthing center in violation of its agreement to purchase the hospital.

“It’s a shame that this is happening, it’s not right,” Jackie Bedell, a registered nurse and vice president of the Petaluma Staff Nurse Partnership told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. “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.”

As part of its contract to purchase the hospital in 2021 from the taxpayer-supported Petaluma Healthcare District, Providence guaranteed that it would keep the birthing center open for a “minimum of five years.” However, the company proceeded with closing it despite opposition from the elected members of the healthcare district.

In a joint NUHW-Petaluma Staff Nurse Partnership op-ed, published in the Press Democrat, the unions called on district leaders to file a lawsuit forcing Providence to honor its contract and resume birthing services — an action district leaders have not ruled out.

With the maternity ward closed, there is no birthing center in the North Bay along a 42-mile corridor from San Rafael to Santa Rosa. Jimmy Huynh, an emergency room nurse at Petaluma Valley, told Northern California Public Media that the upshot could be women having to give birth in the hospital’s Emergency Room.

“That’s not what we’re trained for,” he said. “We don’t want to deliver babies in the ER… we’re busy and short staffed as it is.”

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.

Voters approved the hospital’s sale to Providence in 2020, but the purchase agreement prohibited Providence from closing the birthing center until at least 2025 without the approval of its board of directors.

Providence, which has more than $10 billion in cash reserves, claims it can’t secure anesthesia services for the birthing center, but workers counter that it has the resources to staff the center and its refusal to do so could be a harbinger of more cuts to come.

“Providence is breaking its promise to the people of Petaluma,” said Stephanie Aguilar, an NUHW member and patient services specialist in the Petaluma Valley’s Emergency Department. “If it can get away with violating its contract despite having billions in cash reserves, then no service at our hospital is safe.”

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