The closure of Ascension St. Francis Hospital Birthing Center – the only labor and delivery unit on the South Side of the city – has garnered opposition, but not just because it is closing.
The timing and an alleged assurance earlier that the unit would not close have also raised ire. There are also concerns that the unit closure foretells an uncertain future for the hospital.
The announcement by Ascension on Friday occurs one week before the scheduled closure.
And there is also the matter of the population disproportionately affected. The South Side is heavily Latino.
On Tuesday, despite below-freezing temperatures, dozens of people gathered in front of Milwaukee City Hall to protest the closure.
“We are here because we all deserve better than this,” said Tracey Schwerdtfeger, a steward of the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses & Health Professionals (WFNHP) Local 5000, the chapter representing St. Francis employees.
“Shame on you, Ascension,” she yelled into the mic.
“Shame,” the crowd yelled back.
WFNHP organized the protest after St. Francis administrators informed staff of the closing.
“The last day for admission to Ascension St. Francis labor and delivery unit will be December 21, 2022, and the last planned discharge will be December 23, 2022,” said an Ascension Wisconsin spokesperson. “Labor and Delivery Unit associates will provide additional maternal and fetal expertise in the Ascension St. Francis Emergency Room through January 7 … .”
According to the spokesperson, “birthing services leaders will work hand-in-hand with obstetricians and parents-to-be to ensure a seamless transition of care.”
The reaction of one expectant mother, currently a patient at St. Francis, reflects the frustration.
Crystal Vallance, a 33-year-old South Side resident, said she learned about the closure incidentally on Monday.
“This is a big part of the problem,” Jamie Lucas, executive director of WFNHP, said after the rally. “This whole thing is disorganized and inconsistent. We were told as recently as last week that the unit was not closing.”
During her first prenatal appointment in September, Vallance said staff told her that St. Francis was closing the labor and delivery unit, but only during weekends. Vallance said her care team expected a full reopening by December as the hospital hired more staff.
“Instead, I find out that they’re permanently closing labor and delivery,” she said. “It was obviously a surprise to my care team as well as to me. I’m sure there’s plenty of women who are closer to giving birth than I am. So, Merry Christmas, I guess.”
Lucas said giving birth is such a “deeply personal and intimate experience” and because “so little is in our control about childbirth and our health, we have to get these things right. Where you are going to deliver; having a consistent provider – these are things we can’t afford to screw up.”
A community organization with ties to the South Side also expressed serious concerns.
“I think the biggest thing is – our surprise. That there wasn’t an effort to contact … patients themselves to forewarn about this closure, right during the holidays,” said Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the rights of immigrants and low-wage workers.
“The concern, of course, is that this is going to affect many of our members – largely Latina members – and their ability to quickly access a maternity ward … ,” she said.
If the closure does proceed, Vallance, and patients like her, must pick a new hospital and a new doctor.
The doctor Vallance most trusts lacks admitting privileges to other hospitals, she was told.
Additionally, she lives about a five minute drive from St. Francis but must now map out a new route from her house to the hospital she ultimately chooses.
Ascension Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital is about 15 minutes away, she said, and the Ascension SE Wisconsin Hospital, St. Joseph Campus is about 20 minutes away.
Aurora West Allis Medical Center is another option, said Lucas, but traveling there presents similar barriers that would not have otherwise existed.
Vallance has reliable transportation access, but she sympathizes with those who face steeper barriers and are closer to their due dates.
“I think it’s very interesting that a nonprofit — a Christian-affiliated hospital — is continuously trying to pull away from people who need the most,” Vallance said.
In addition to transportation, there are barriers around language, affordability, and – sometimes –immigration status, which “make it harder to be able to access health care … and which contribute to the existing inequality around public health … ,” said Neumann-Ortiz.
The Ascension spokesperson said the closure is a “consolidation” of services that gives patients “access to the most comprehensive labor, delivery and postpartum services to all Ascension Wisconsin moms and babies.”
How did we get here?
Hospital administrators have not provided an explicit reason for the decision, Lucas said, but staff described what they believe has been an incremental dismantling of labor and delivery services at St. Francis.
As providers left or retired, “Ascension has chosen not to replace or fill” these open positions, said Connie Smith, president of WFNHP.
Recent reporting by The New York Times revealed staffing shortages at other Ascension hospitals in the country, sometimes resulting in what health professionals said were unsafe conditions.
Ascension leaders declined to respond to a request for further comment on specific allegations about staffing, timing and impact.
Smith made comparisons to other cuts at different Milwaukee-area hospitals within the Ascension system.
“I’ve lived this,” said Smith. “I started at St. Michael’s Hospital within the (Ascension) system. And they closed my labor and delivery unit. Prior to them closing my labor and delivery unit … they reduced services.”
The St. Michael campus was closed in 2006, and Smith and her colleagues are “scared this is going to happen at our facility at St. Francis.”
More recently, residents and community members in the North Side expressed concern about the cutting of services at the St. Joseph campus in 2019.
What happens next?
In attendance at the protest was Alderman Scott Spiker, who represents the 13th District, who said after the rally that this decision “doesn’t do anybody any good.”
“People should have a right to give birth in their home, in their communities,” he said.
Because of Ascension’s nonprofit status, Spiker said there is potential for public officials to influence the decision.
“We have partnerships here. We have relationships we can leverage,” he said. “But in the end, we ultimately need folks to do the right thing. And we can lead them to that. But we can’t make them do that.”
“I’m confident we can at least get voices heard that maybe you wouldn’t hear otherwise,” he added.
“We have a vision for our labor and delivery unit, and we have a vision for our hospital at St. Francis,” said Smith. “That vision is to have our labor and delivery staffed with the appropriate physicians and appropriate nurses and technical workers to make sure babies on the South Side of Milwaukee can be born there.”
Jim Malewitz of Wisconsin Watch, an NNS partner, contributed to this report.
How to find new providers
For those who also need to contact potential providers, St. Mary’s unit is located at 2323 N. Lake Drive. The number is 414-585-1000
The unit at the St. Joseph campus is located at 5000 W. Chambers St. The number is 414-447-2000.
The Aurora Women’s Pavilion at Aurora West Allis Medical Center is located at 8905 W Lincoln Ave. The number is 414-328-6000.