Below is one resident’s reaction to the official hearing convened last week by the state to consider Nuvance Health’s request to discontinue maternity services at Sharon Hospital, a process requiring state approval. Further background on Nuvance’s petition, the “Certificate of Need” process, and the conditions facing rural hospitals in our state can be found on the websites of the CT Mirror, CT Insider, and CT News Junkie

 —The Editors

On December 6th, the state finally held a hearing on whether Nuvance Health, the owner and operator of Sharon Hospital, can close labor and delivery services there. It opened at 9:30 am and didn’t wrap up until 9:30pm. At around 6pm the hearing officer, Daniel Csuka, gently suggested adjourning to resume another day, but they pressed on. It was exhausting for everyone involved.

I only caught the later hours of the Office of Health Strategy (OHS)-run hearing, the parts dominated by public testimony, and OHS officials cross-examining Nuvance Health and Save Sharon Hospital (SSH) representatives. Nuvance needs the state to OK its plan to close labor and delivery, which it had promised to keep open until April 2024 as part of a 2019 agreement.

The hearing was at times inspiring, confusing, and infuriating. The lines in the sand were clear. Almost all of those who testified in favor of closing labor and delivery are employed by Nuvance. (At an earlier SSH roundtable it was stated that Nuvance was stopping employees opposed to the plan from testifying.) They framed the closure as a business decision and a necessary evil. Most speaking against were local residents and officials, who see a humanitarian issue, a community issue, and a suspect corporate entity on the other side of the table. For instance, Cornwall’s First Selectmen Gordon Ridgway voiced that there is no support for Nuvance’s “transformative plan” among local elected officials, and his daughter Rebecca spoke from her experience as an EMT about the dire situations that the closure could place her in. (Full disclosure: I also testified against the closure.)

Several quantitative questions surfaced repeatedly during the hearing. How many babies have been born in the county and region in recent years? How many are projected to be born in the coming years?

But these seemingly straightforward questions, though failing to elicit reliable numbers, did elicit lengthy back-and-forth arguments between interrogators and witnesses. Nuvance seemed unable to produce any solid data, either as past or projection, and seemed determined to limit what numbers they did give to “Connecticut babies,”—as if the approximately half of the hospital’s clientele that comes from New York did not deserve to be taken into account. Nuvance also leaned on data ending in 2019 while ignoring apparent pandemic population shifts.

As to the question of how many babies would need to be delivered by an ER doctor at Sharon Hospital if there is no maternity unit, the two sides seemed to live in separate universes, with SSH insisting on the potential precariousness of every single delivery and Nuvance insisting on the security of planning a birth at a more distant facility and the rarity of emergency circumstances.

The hearing played out as a microcosm of our underperforming healthcare system. It is a feature, not a bug, to pit regional business interests against public health needs. And now it is OHS’s task to piece together some coherent picture from all the scattered data and figure out how to do minimal harm. It will likely be months until they decide.

 —Jane Carlen

Photos (Left to Right): John Muphy, CEO of Nuvance; Hearing Officer Daniel Czuka; and Dr. Howard Mortman.