Published January 16. 2013 6:00PM Updated January 17. 2013 4:14PM
Westerly — Women may not be able to give birth at The Westerly Hospital after June 1, the attorney in charge of the financially troubled hospital said Wednesday.
Attorney Mark Russo, the court-appointed special master for the receivership process, said in a brief statement that obstetrics services will continue "at least up and until June 1." He said he is working with the buyer, Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London, "to present a plan for continuing women's health services at the Westerly Hospital after the mastership concludes its operation."
L+M has applied to Rhode Island hospital regulators to purchase the smaller hospital for $69 million and is hoping to close on the purchase this winter.
According to Jackie Desmond, executive vice president of the Westerly nurses' union, Russo earlier this week told the hospital's medical staff, management and staff of the women's health center that delivery services would cease June 1 in terms that sounded more definite than his statement Wednesday.
"We are concerned about access to care, and we (the nurses' union) want to be involved in the plan" that L+M and the special master are developing, said Desmond, who has worked as a labor and delivery nurse for 32 years.
Mike O'Farrell, spokesman for L+M, said the New London hospital "supports the special master's decision, due to low patient volumes and staff shortages." At 300 births per year, the volume is not high enough to maintain the service without subsidies. It is currently staffed by two senior obstetricians, Dr. Andrew Neuhauser and Dr. Robert Greenlee.
"We are continuing to work on a plan to provide the best women's health services to the community," he said. One possibility, he said, is to establish an obstetrics care office affiliated with L+M in Westerly, where women could receive prenatal care, but then direct them to L+M for deliveries, he said.
Jan Salsich, president of the nurses' union, said the union believes L+M and Russo "are not living up to commitments to maintain services at Westerly Hospital, including maternity." She was referring to pledges made during the receivership proceedings that led up to Judge Brian Stern's decision to approve L+M's offer to buy Westerly Hospital, pending approval by Rhode Island hospital regulators. L+M's application with the state is pending.
"It is a sensitive issue, and it's very upsetting that it's being announced as if it's beyond discussion, and I don't think it is," Salsich said.
Russo's announcement, she added, also seemed like "an abrupt reversal" of statements he made to the court on Monday, that a plan for sustaining obstetrics services was still being developed.
Obstetrics services, she said, are "a cornerstone of a community hospital," and losing them will erode overall community support for the hospital, she said.
"We do know that women tend to choose the health care for the family, and the first decision young women make is where they want to have their babies," she said.
O'Farrell said L+M remains committed to maintaining all Westerly Hospital services that are in place at the time of closing.