Push to reopen St. Francis labor and delivery unit turns to city leaders

MILWAUKEE — Union leaders representing staff at Ascension Saint Francis urged Milwaukee city leaders to help reopen the labor and delivery unit and restore services.

The labor and delivery unit shut down abruptly around Christmas. Ascension Wisconsin announced it would transition those services to their St. Joseph’s and Columbia St. Mary’s locations.

The change sparked outrage and protests. Critics highlighted that the change removes the only birthing unit in Milwaukee’s south side.

“We believe the city needs to be involved because this is not just a worker issue at St. Francis. This is a community issue,” said Tracey Schwerdtfeger.

Schwerdtfeger spoke during the meeting as the RN Bargaining Unit President at St. Francis Hospital for the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals and an executive board member with the Milwaukee Area Labor Council.

Union representatives told the committee the decision to shut down the labor and delivery unit at St. Francis was the result of Ascension diving and cutting staff over the years which has contributed to low birth rates.

They also pointed to Columbia St. Mary’s staffing crisis amid Ascension’s plan to transition some patients there.

“We have healthcare workers sounding the alarm through unions,” said Jamie Lucas, executive director of the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals.

Representatives asked the committee to rally behind St. Francis as they did with St. Joseph’s a few years ago ultimately saving it from cuts.

Ascension Wisconsin has cited the loss of obstetrical providers and low birthing volumes as the need to consolidate. In a statement, the health system pointed to the impacts of a national shortage of caregivers and their efforts to recruit clinical staff.

According to Ascension Wisconsin, since December the provider has hired 84 nurses and nursing support to join the Ascension Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital.

Council members were collectively concerned about how it got to this point.

“We’re noticing a pattern here that’s not good. That’s harmful to the City of Milwaukee,” said Alderman Mark Borkowski.

“The thing that needs more digging is whether what we have here is a reflection of changes in the population or a reflection of a need for greater profit,” Alderman Scott Spiker pointed out.

Ascension Wisconsin did not have a representative at the meeting. Chair JoCasta Zamarripa said the health system informed the committee it needed more time.

The city’s health department recognized access to a safe birthing unit for people in labor but said it is only one aspect of care.

“Overall, access to comprehensive maternity care may not necessarily be compromised by an individual decision to close a birthing unit,” said Dr. Heather Paradis, with MHD.

The committee did not take any action but said this is not the end. It wants to hear from Ascension Wisconsin and other community partners.

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