As Mercy Suburban closes its unit, only two Catholic hospitals in the Archdiocese will offer obstetric care

By Lou Baldwin
Special to the CS&T

EAST NORRITON – In the five- county area there are 44 general acute care hospitals. At one time just about all of them delivered babies. Since 1997, 17 have discontinued obstetrics, and today only 23 continue to deliver babies.

Soon there will be 22. The latest casualty is Mercy Suburban Hospital in East Norriton, which last month announced all OB services would cease as of June 2010 or sooner (subject to regulatory requirements) if volume no longer sustains operations.

Scheduled deliveries are not affected by the announcement, and the hospital said it is still accepting new OB patients through Jan. 18. Other women’s health services, including gynecology, will continue.

For Mercy Suburban, “the combination of decreasing volume, ongoing cuts in reimbursement and increasing costs resulted in growing losses that are no longer sustainable,” the hospital said in a statement.

With obstetrics discontinued at Mercy Suburban, only two Catholic hospitals in the Archdiocese will still deliver babies – Holy Redeemer Hospital in Meadowbrook and St. Mary Medical Center in Langhorne.

There are many underlying causes for this shrinkage, according to Priscilla Koutouradis, communications director for the Delaware Valley Health Council (DVHC), which is the Philadelphia branch of the Hospital Association of Pennsylvania. Among them she listed financial challenges, medical assistance underpayment, liability issues and work force shortages.

“It’s a gut-wrenching decision for hospitals to do this,” she said. “We’ve been concerned about this for a long time.”

It is not for an overall lack of babies being born. The rate has remained stable, with about 53,000 babies born every year in Southeastern Pennsylvania, according to DVHC figures. The fact is, especially in this economic downturn, hospitals have seen sharp decreases in income, including state subsidies. Professional liability costs alone have increased 93 percent since 2000, according to DVHC figures.

If many women must now travel further for prenatal services, does the closing of so many OB units and diminished access adversely affect the level of care?

Data provided by Koutouradis suggests it does. Between 1997 and 2006 the number of low-birth weight babies in Southeastern Pennsylvania increased from 8.6 percent to 9.4 percent.

The closing of so many obstetrics units throughout the area has meant more babies being delivered by those hospitals which still provide the service.

“We are delivering approximately 3,000 babies per year, which is an increase of more than 50 percent since 2005,” said Marian Thallner, vice president of women’s and children’s services at Holy Redeemer Hospital and Medical Center in Meadowbrook. “This makes Holy Redeemer one of the top five providers of maternity care in the region.”

Although it is located in Montgomery County, Holy Redeemer attracts many of its patients from Northeast Philadelphia. It is undergoing a $10 million renovation and expansion of its maternity center, which will increase maternity beds from 10 to 19 and allow for up to 4,000 births each year.

“As maternity units are closing in our region, the Maternity Center of Excellence at Holy Redeemer Hospital and Medical Center remains committed to the area’s women and children, who are at the core of the mission of the Sisters of the Holy Redeemer,” the hospital said in a statement.

At Langhorne’s St. Mary Medical Center, births are also up, according to spokesperson Kathleen Smith. In 2007 1,603 babies were delivered; in 2008 the number rose to 1,783, and is projected to pass 1,900 in 2009.

The Mother-Baby Unit at St. Mary includes seven birthing suites where labor, delivery and recovery all take place to ensure maximum patient comfort.

In addition to the hospital, St. Mary conducts the Mother Bachman Maternity Center in nearby Bensalem, which provides quality prenatal and maternity care to pregnant women regardless of their ability to pay.

“In 2008, more than 370 babies were delivered at St. Mary Medical Center to Mother Bachmann Maternity Center parents,” Smith said. “St. Mary Medical Center remains committed to providing comprehensive obstetrical services to meet the needs of our community.”

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.