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Greater Taunton community voices anger at closing of Morton Hospital’s pediatric unit, 5/22/13

TAUNTON — State health officials were in town Tuesday to hear arguments for and against Morton Hospital's plan to close its 13-bed pediatric unit.

The Department of Public Health held the hearing, which took place at the Taunton Public Library, as part of a state review of the hospital's proposal.

Throughout most of the hearing, a packed crowd of local pediatricians, nurses from the hospital, officials from local public health organizations and everyday citizens from the Taunton area rallied against the plan to shut down the unit and expressed concern that the decision to close it was motivated by profits. The opponents to the closure cited various reasons that the unit should remain open, including the need for access to acute pediatric care for low income families that don’t have means of transportation to facilities in Boston or Providence, and the quality of the experienced nurses who work in the Level II pediatric unit, among many other points.

Top ranking hospital officials and a spokesperson for Morton’s for-profit corporate owner Steward Healthcare, which bought the Taunton medical facility in 2011 with plans of investment and commitment to the community, spoke in favor of closing the pediatric unit. Morton Hospital President Kimberly Bassett said that the pediatric unit’s low volume of patients made it impossible to retain or recruit physicians, and that children deserve a higher level of care that comes with a pediatric unit staff that has skills honed from a larger amount of admissions.

“Following this hearing, the Department will make a determination as to whether the service to be discontinued is necessary to preserving access and health status in the hospital service area,” said Sherman Lhones, assistant director of the Division of Health Care Quality at Department of Public Health (DPH). “The department will consider evidence presented at this hearing for current utilization of this service, the capacity for alternate sites to provide the service, and other relevant information available to the department.”

Lhones, who oversaw the meeting, said that DPH will make its determination within 15 days. If the department finds that the service to be discontinued is necessary to preserving access and health status, the department will require hospital to submit a plan assuring access to the service within 15 calendar days of its finding. The DPH will respond to the hospital in writing with approval or written comments, to which the hospital must respond, Lhones said.

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