Health district pushes back after hospital owners announce plan to close birthing center
Just a little over two years after nonprofit healthcare provider Providence bought Petaluma Valley Hospital, its leaders have announced plans to close the hospital’s birthing center and cut ties with its anesthesiology provider.
But a few days after the announcement by Providence – made through its local affiliate NorCal HealthConnect during a Wednesday, Jan. 18 meeting of the Petaluma Health Care District board – the district made its own announcement, pointing out that Providence is contractually obligated to keep its birthing center open until at least the end of 2025.
“Despite the best efforts by Providence and the local physician community to support the Family Birthing Center at Petaluma Valley Hospital, recruit new physicians and secure anesthesia services into the future, it has become clear that the Family Birthing Center cannot continue to sustain itself and meet our high standards of safety and patient experience in the coming years,” Providence said in its statement announcing the closure.
Those words were in contrast to statements made by Providence leadership in 2020, when the hospital was still up for sale – with part of the deal of the sale being that the new owners must keep the birthing center open for at least five years after purchase.
“We’re not in any way saying we will only operate OB for five years,” said Kevin Klockenga, chief executive of NorCal HealthConnect, in an October 2020 interview with the Argus-Courier. “We certainly hope we will operate it for 100 years. The challenge is predicting the future.”
At the time, Klockenga said the healthcare provider would reevaluate the service closer to 2025 to see if the birthing center is still viable.
Providence has not disclosed when exactly it intends to close Petaluma’s birthing center. When asked, Steven Buck, executive director of communication, said last Friday, “We do not have a specific date, but we expect this to be a multi-month process.”
Providence also stated that it is “working with the district in accordance with the purchase agreement to address community concerns and ensure a smooth transition.”
However, the Petaluma Health Care District board appeared to take issue with this framing. In its own statement released last weekend, the board emphasized that the purchase agreement, which took effect on Jan. 1, 2021, “requires NorCal HealthConnect to operate Petaluma Valley Hospital’s Family Birthing Center for a minimum of five years from the sale date, unless a majority of the directors of the district board approves its closure.”
That means that without district board approval, Providence remains on the hook to keep the birthing center open until Jan. 1, 2026.
“Contrary to a statement issued by (Providence regional chief executive Laureen) Driscoll that Providence is working with the district to ensure a smooth transition, the district board has not agreed to this outcome or made a decision,” the board said.
“The district expects Providence to focus on solutions to keep the Family Birthing Center open and honor the commitment they made to our community. Per the PVH sale agreement, the closure of the Family Birthing Center without the approval of the majority of the directors of the district board will be a default under the agreement. The district believes that the Family Birthing Center is a critical asset to Petaluma and our surrounding rural communities.”
In order to better address "a number of related questions for and requests of Providence, including financial information relating to PVH and the Family Birthing Center, Providence’s efforts to attract and retain anesthesia coverage, and data around the patient volume at the Family Birthing Center,“ the district called a special board meeting for Wednesday, Jan. 25 beginning at 6 p.m.
With a closure on the horizon, the birthing center’s doctors and nurses will most likely be sent to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital as part of an effort by Providence to consolidate its obstetric services – and local mothers will have to follow them there, or go to Marin County, to give birth in a hospital.
“The decision to bring these services together into one location was not taken lightly,” said Driscoll, the regional chief executive. “However, by focusing these services at Providence Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, we will be able to maintain adequate staffing and services for obstetrics patients.”
Denise Cobb, who has worked at Petaluma Valley Hospital as a labor and delivery nurse for 25 years, emphasized at the Wednesday meeting that the Petaluma hospital is the only one able to deliver babies between Marin County and Santa Rosa – and that with the birthing center’s closure, it could put expecting mothers’ safety at risk when trying to get to the nearest hospital to give birth.