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Milwaukee hospital’s plan to close labor and delivery unit comes under fire

A hospital on Milwaukee’s South Side is scheduled to end its labor and delivery services Wednesday, laying off about 20 employees and requiring expectant parents who live in that part of the city to travel farther to give birth.

With that action by Ascension St. Francis Hospital, “there will be no labor and delivery services on the South Side of Milwaukee by any entity,” said Jamie Lucas, executive director of the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals. The union represents about 500 employees at the hospital, including nurses, technicians, medical assistants, and housekeepers.

The union organized a rally at Milwaukee’s City Hall Tuesday evening to appeal to city officials to intervene in the hospital’s decision, although it’s not clear what direct avenues they or other government officials might take.

St. Francis is part of Ascension, a Catholic-affiliated, nonprofit nationwide chain based in St Louis. The corporate parent issued a statement Monday confirming plans to close the St. Francis labor and delivery services, moving them to two affiliated hospitals: Columbia-St. Mary’s on Milwaukee’s East Side and St. Joseph on the city’s North Side.

“This consolidation ensures access to the most comprehensive labor, delivery and postpartum services to all Ascension Wisconsin moms and babies,” the statement declared, including specialty care for newborns and a neonatal intensive care unit, among other services.

The statement was distributed to the media with the instruction to attribute it to an “Ascension Wisconsin spokesperson.” Ascension did not respond to follow-up inquiries.

In an interview, Lucas, the union executive director, said the loss of St. Francis’ labor and delivery unit would worsen health equity in the city, which already has “one of the worst maternal death rates in the country.”

It’s part of a broader wave throughout the health care system that has focused on reducing staff size and cutting labor costs at the expense of patient care, he added.

“The entire health care system is on fire because of decisions like Ascension has made to disinvest,” Lucas said. “We don’t have labor and delivery deserts in affluent suburbs.”

In response to questions that union members posed to hospital managers about the greater distance that South Side residents will have to travel to either of the other hospitals, “they said, ‘it’s not that much further away,'” Lucas said. “It is that much further away when you have two jobs and you don’t have a car.”

He called the hospital management out of touch with the community in which St. Francis is located.

“The people who make these decisions, they live a fundamentally different life than the people who are affected by these decisions,” Lucas said. “This is going to harm people’s ability to access this care.”

Lucas said the loss of jobs by 20 union members and “a handful of others” not in the union would also contribute to the strain already being felt in other areas of the hospital, as well burdening low-income residents in the hospital’s urban community.

According to Lucas, it wasn’t clear to employees or union members how long the hospital’s decision was in the works. When union members raised the prospect of the unit closing at a labor management meeting in November, managers denied any such plans, he said. The received union official word of the decision on Friday, Dec. 16

The union has been reaching out to elected officials including Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson as well as members of the Milwaukee city council, county board and in the state legislature in hopes that they could bring some pressure on the hospital to reverse its decision.

Late Tuesday afternoon, four Milwaukee alders issued a joint statement about the planned closing.

“We are concerned about access to healthcare for our constituents and families, including our burgeoning Latino/x and immigrant communities,” said the statement from Alds. Scott Spiker, JoCasta Zamarripa, Marina Dimitrijevic and José Perez, the Milwaukee Common Council president. “This decision means that expecting families have to travel further for the care they may need, and could also have a negative economic impact on our districts.”

Earlier Tuesday, State Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) decried the hospital’s decision, attributing it to a broader pattern of disinvestment from facilities where workers have unions and favoring non-union operations.

“We don’t have a healthcare system so much as a profit machine that punishes the sick and rewards the greedy,” Larson said in a written statement.

Unlike the alders’ statement, Larson directly criticized the hospital’s owner, Ascension, which operates 139 hospitals in 19 states as well as more than 2,000 other clinics and specialty health care centers. In Wisconsin it has hospitals or other facilities in Milwaukee and its suburbs Brookfield and Wauwatosa, as well as in Racine and Appleton.

Larson’s statement included a link to a Dec. 15 New York Times article that spotlighted Ascension in a series investigating the nation’s nonprofit hospital corporations. Ascension “spent years reducing its staffing levels in an effort to improve profitability, even though the chain is a nonprofit organization with nearly $18 billion in cash reserves,” according to the Times.

The article states that the hospital system’s strategy to reduce its labor force “left Ascension flat-footed for Covid.”

After the article’s publication, Ascension circulated a statement to its employees that said accounts the story included “are not an accurate representation of the extraordinary care we provide to patients, their families and our communities each and every day.”

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