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Nurses dig in to oppose North Auburn birthing center closure

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Birthing Center nurses at Sutter Auburn Faith Hospital are publicly opposing plans to close labor and delivery services. And they’re asking the Auburn community to join them in an attempt to reverse a Sutter Health Sacramento Sierra Region board decision announced last week that would move Sutter Auburn Faith Hospital Birthing Center services to Roseville. “It’s a done deal as far as Sutter Health is concerned and now it’s up to the community,” said Lynn Bovee, a birthing center nurse. “Our main concern is that Sutter Health is leaving a lot of women and families vulnerable by not providing an essential service.” Denise Pavelko, who has worked as a nurse at Sutter Auburn Faith Hospital for 20 years, said families will have to travel from as far away as above Alta and the Foresthill area to Roseville rather than the North Auburn facility. Besides the shorter length of time and travel for care, Pavelko said families get excellent care at Auburn. “We’re a small, very caring, and competent unit that provides a high level of care,” Pavelko said. Sutter Auburn Faith CEO Mitch Hanna said no one is arguing that the unit is not well-regarded but demographics – specifically the decrease in women of child-bearing age in the Auburn area – are forcing the hospital system to try to fit the needs of the community. The North Auburn birthing unit – which has 11 rooms – averaged about a birth a day last year – down from 474 in 2005 and 505 in 2006. Sutter Health made plans to close the birthing unit about five years ago but community protests at that time forced the care provider to change its mind. Hanna said that the hospital has attempted to promote the unit, even advertising on a billboard. Adding to the uncertainty, the birthing unit – which currently has three obstetricians on staff, plus a gynecologist – has sustained a prolonged period of turnover in the unit. Hanna said 11 different obstetricians have come and gone in 11 years, with the hospital paying $1.2 million in recruitment costs. The nurses say doctors are recruited but aren’t given enough support from Sutter Health to stay. Medi-Cal reimbursement is so low that obstetricians and gynecologists can’t sustain a private practice, Hanna said. In Auburn, the drop in births has also been marked by a high percentage of Medi-Cal births involving patients without health insurance. Hanna said about 65 percent of the births at the Auburn hospital are Medi-Cal funded. But Hanna added that the percentage of Medi-Cal births isn’t atypical, noting that 800 of the 3,000 births at the Roseville facility 20 miles away from Auburn were state funded. Sutter Auburn Faith is a Medi-Cal-contracted facility while Roseville is not. But Hanna said that Roseville does take Medi-Cal patients for birthing if it’s an emergency. “But if it’s a scheduled birth, the state prefers delivery at a contracted facility,” he said. Auburn Mayor Bill Kirby, a former chief of medical staff at Sutter Auburn Faith, said that he recognizes Sutter Health is having a real problem with not enough deliveries in Auburn. He also points to a move toward regionalization of many facilities, citing Kaiser Permanente locating its birthing center for the area in Roseville. Kirby said he understands the feelings of many people who would like to see their babies born in Auburn but it doesn’t appear feasible to continue with the center in the current economic climate. With 370 births last year in Auburn, Bovee said the need is still there and the facility as it currently is operated is a good one. “It would be unsafe to let the emergency department take care of them,” Bovee said. “They’re not equipped or trained to do that.” Pavelko said the 25 nurses and other staff members can easily find jobs but the loss will be great from a very committed group of hospital workers. “We provide a connection to the community,” Pavelko said. “It’s not unusual for nurses to be stopped and given a hug by families who have had a birth in Auburn. That’s huge.”