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PVH nurses rally for OB unit

Nurses at Petaluma Valley Hospital Saturday held a rally to advocate for a longer commitment to keep open the facility’s family birthing center beyond the five years to which a potential new owner has agreed.

At the gathering of about 50 nurses and supporters in Walnut Park Saturday morning, the head of the nurses union said the group might oppose Measure CC unless NorCal HealthConnect agrees to a longer commitment for the obstetrics unit.

Measure CC, on the November ballot, asks voters to approve the sale of the hospital to NorCal HealthConnect, the secular affiliate of Providence St. Joseph Health. The Petaluma Health Care District, the public agency that owns the hospital, negotiated the sale for $52.6 million. It would require the new owner to keep the hospital open for at least 20 years, but the birthing center is required to stay open for only five years.

Hospital officials said the deal, which must be approved by voters, is the result of a long process to determine the hospital’s future. They said that, even if the deal is approved, there would be time over the next five years to advocate for the birthing center, and the new owner could still decide to keep it open beyond the minimum commitment.

Jim Goerlich, president of Petaluma Staff Nurse Partnership, said that Providence St. Joseph is getting the better end of the deal. The nurses are in contentious contract negotiations with St. Joseph, which has operated the hospital for more than 20 years. But Goerlich said the latest action was about the OB unit, not the nurses’ contract.

“Petaluma is selling the hospital for pennies on the dollar,” he said. “In this deal we can’t even get them to commit to keeping OB services?”

Kevin Klockenga, chief executive for St. Joseph Health, Northern California, said the five-year term for the OB unit is the minimum commitment. He said the healthcare provider would reevaluate the service closer to 2025 to see if the birthing center is still viable.

“We’re not in any way saying we will only operate OB for five years,” he said in an interview. “We certainly hope we will operate it for 100 years. The challenge is predicting the future.”

Factors that could determine whether the birthing center stays open longer than five years include financial considerations and patient safety, he said.

Elece Hempel, president of the health care district board, said Measure CC is important to ensuring the future of the entire hospital. She said that it is the result of a five-year process, and there are not better alternatives if voters reject the measure.

She said that the measure would allow Petaluma to have an emergency room for at least 20 years. And the new owner could eventually commit to keeping OB services if they become profitable, she said.

“The fact that the hospital is secured for 20 years is a big freaking deal,” she said. “Things can still be worked out. Five years (for the OB unit) is in their business plan now, but things can change. We’ll have an opportunity to advocate for it. We could build our own birthing center with the $52 million we have in our back pocket.”

At the weekend rally, which included three Petaluma City Council candidates — former physcian Dennis Pocekay as well as Brian Barnacle and Lizzie Wallack — participants held signs that said “Life for many Petalumans begins at PVH.”

That message was emphasized by several OB nurses, who said that if the PVH birthing center were to close, there would be no facility for a delivering mother between Santa Rosa and Marin County.

“It’s so important to the community,” said Ellen Barbieri, a PHV nurse for three years. “It’s just a special place to give birth. We have a continuity of care that large hospitals can’t offer.”

For Lisa Portman-Fain, an OB nurse at the hospital for 14 years, the loss of the unit would be personal — it would mean the loss of her job. But more than that, she said local women’s health would suffer if the unit closes.

“The biggest loss I would feel is for the community of Petaluma and for the mothers and babies outside the area who arrive on our unit when they are in active labor or are experiencing complications during their pregnancy and are unable to make it to their delivering hospital,” she said. “The PVH OB unit provides vital services to all of Sonoma County and the surrounding areas.”

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)

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