LEWISTON – Since its earliest days, St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center has helped bring babies into the world — more than a thousand of them annually at the height of the post-World War II baby boom.
But not for much longer.
St. Mary’s Health System, the parent company of the hospital, announced Wednesday that it plans to close its maternity and women’s health service line at the end of July.
“It’s a very difficult day,” said Dr. Douglas Smith, chief medical officer at St. Mary’s.
Most of its 50-person staff, though, is simply moving across town to Central Maine Medical Center to create an expanded program there that proponents said will ensure the community continues to have access to high-quality maternal, neonatal and women’s health care for decades to come. Those involved anticipate that most St. Mary’s patients will also switch to CMMC.
“We’re going to make this process as seamless as possible,” said Dr. Maureen Perdue, who chairs the women’s health program at St. Mary’s.
Perdue said that she and two other obstetrician-gynecologists who specialize in women’s health will transfer to CMMC as will all three of St. Mary’s midwives and many or all of the nurses who work with them.
“We have the unique opportunity to consolidate maternal care in the Lewiston-Auburn area and create a single center of excellence for women’s health care,” Dr. Jennifer Weiner-Smith, OB/GYN department chief at CMMC, said in a prepared statement.
Stephen Costello, a spokesperson for St. Mary’s, said the women’s health employees who got the news early Wednesday felt “surprise and sadness,” but also understood that declining birth rates both nationally and in Androscoggin County required a change.
All of the employees are being given a chance to stay with St. Mary’s, which has vacancies in many medical areas, but any of them who want to stay in the women’s health program have been told that CMMC will hire them.
“Our hope is that members of St. Mary’s women’s health staff will join us here at CMMC,” Weiner-Smith said.
Livermore resident Jenny Timberlake said Wednesday that each of her four children, born during the past six years, entered the world at St. Mary’s.
She said it is “incredibly disheartening” to learn that its maternity ward is going to close.
“The staff was amazing each and every single time we were on the birthing unit,” she said, even during the height of the pandemic, when “they all kept me incredibly at ease. “
“The whole situation is very sad,” Timberlake said.
“The decision to close our maternity services was difficult and emotional, but is in the best interest of our community,” St. Mary’s President Steve Jorgensen said in a prepared statement. “Our staff in the Women’s Health Center are dedicated and caring professionals that will continue to provide exemplary medical services in our communities if they so choose. We are committed to retain and retrain any staff who wish to remain at St. Mary’s after the Women’s Center closes and CMMC will hire any staff that wants to stay with the women’s health program.”
St. Mary’s and CMMC have watched as birth rates have declined steadily since 2017. Last year, the two hospitals together had 1,044 births — half as many as the community had a couple decades ago.
Statewide and county statistics show that births are down over the past decade. They’re up by a fifth between women age 30 or older, but among younger women, birth rates are down sharply.
Births to teenagers dropped from 868 to 340 between 2011 and 2019, according to state statistics. For women ages 20 to 24, the number of births fell from 3,112 in 2011 to 2,076 in 2019. But there were about a thousand more births per year among women in their thirties in 2019 than there had been in 2011.
At St. Mary’s and CMMC, records show, the number of births fell from 1,273 in 2017 to 1,044 in 2021. Overall, that’s half as many as the two hospitals had just a couple of decades ago.
Perdue said that about a year ago, she began talking with a doctor at CMMC about the trends, with both recognizing that it made little sense to split a diminishing number of births between two hospitals.
She said that closing the women’s health center at St. Mary’s was the obvious choice because CMMC had more space and better care for babies with some special health issues.
As they explored the issue further, and brought hospital executives and others into the discussion, it became ever clearer that the change should be made, Perdue said. It was a medical choice, she said, not an administrative or business one.
“The question was ‘how can we unite and be stronger?’” Perdue said.
By collaborating, and bringing the staffs together, the health care possibilities for women and babies would expand, she said, not diminish.
“It’s really a clinical decision,” Perdue said.
Perdue called it “a hard process” to get everything in order to make the change, which she recognizes will be painful for some, but she is certain it will create “a great place” that builds on the tradition of caring at St. Mary’s.
Personally, she said, “I’m excited to stay” with the program as it moves.
The change was recommended and approved by the boards of St. Mary’s Health System and its parent company, Covenant Health. State officials with the Department of Health and Human Service have also been notified of this decision.
Hospital leaders said that closing the women’s health center won’t save any money and won’t have much impact on the hospital as a whole, though it may mean fewer ultrasounds and some other tests. They said this move wasn’t driven by finances but rather by the recognition that having one busy program for women’s health would be better for the community than to have two smaller ones that could not offer as much between them as a stronger single one could.
St. Mary’s said it will be coordinating transfer of patients and records over the next few months as the transition moves ahead toward making CMMC the only maternity ward in the city.
“Patients will be contacted, and we will work closely with them to make the process easy,” Jorgensen said in the prepared statement.
The president and CEO of Central Maine Healthcare, Steve Littleson, said in a prepared statement that his hospital is extending “a warm welcome to all patients from St. Mary’s who need OB/maternity and other women’s health services.”
“Like our healthcare partners at St. Mary’s, for 130 years, CMMC has been providing care in an inclusive and welcoming environment,” Littleson said.
Jorgensen said that “with the availability of a Level 2 neonatal intensive care unit and LifeFlight services in our community at CMMC, we felt that our communities will be well-served to care for all patients, including in the case of high-risk pregnancies.”
“We will work together with our parent organization, Covenant Health, CMMC or any other health care provider of choice, to ensure a smooth and orderly transition for our patients,” Jorgensen said.
Jorgensen, Smith and Costello each said there are no plans yet for what the hospital will do with the space currently devoted to the Corinne Croteau Lepage Women’s Health Pavilion. Jorgensen said it will be used to meet health needs in the community, but exactly what remains uncertain.