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Massachusetts Department of Public Health says Morton Hospital’s Pediatric unit is essential

Taunton Gazette, 6/11/13

After hearing...

The state Department of Public Health has weighed in on Morton Hospital’s plan to close its pediatric unit, calling the pediatric services “essential” for the community.

“As a result of its review, including testimony presented at the hearing, the Department has made a finding that the pediatric services Morton Hospital has proposed to eliminate are necessary for preserving access and health status in Morton Hospital’s service area,” DPH Director of Health Care quality Madeleine Biondolillo said in a June 5 letter.

In the letter, which followed a May 21 public hearing, the DPH requested that the hospital submit a plan that details how access to pediatric services will be maintained. The plan, according to the DPH, must be submitted within 15 days of receipt of the letter and provide information on use of the existing unit, information about services provided at other facilities, an assessment of transportation needs, a proposal to maintain continuity of care and a protocol describing how patients in the Taunton area will access services at other facilities.

“The plan Morton submits to the Department will be reviewed to determine if the plan assures access to the essential services in question following Morton Hospital’s closure of pediatric services,” the letter states.

The DPH, though, does not have the authority to actually prevent a unit closure.

Morton Hospital, which is owned by Steward Health Care System, announced in March that it was preparing to close its inpatient pediatric unit due to low patient volume and the end of an agreement with Tufts Floating Hospital for Children to staff the Taunton unit with pediatric hospitalists.

Steward spokesman Christopher Murphy said the decision to close the unit is based on “clinical appropriateness,” and that the low patient volumes have made it difficult to find pediatric physicians willing to work there.

Morton Hospital, he said, has an outstanding offer for an acute pediatric hospital to take over the unit for $1, but has had no takers.

“It’s not a question of finances,” he said. “It’s a question of a willingness of pediatricians to want to come work there… Doctors want to have patients, and we don’t have many there.”

The DPH held a hearing last month and heard testimony from members of the community, many of whom opposed the planned closure.

“This is a very, very powerful and strong statement that this is a service this community desperately needs, and we are hoping Steward, with the board of the Department of Public Health and policymakers weighing in, will reverse its decision and keep this vital service open,” Massachusetts Nurses Association spokesman David Shildmeier said after reviewing the June 5 letter. 

The hospital says it cares for an average of one pediatric patient per day in its inpatient unit and saw 284 pediatric patients in the unit last year. Nurses who oppose the planned closure dispute those figures.

They say the pediatric unit treats an average of four patients a day and that the discrepancy is due to the way patients are coded when admitted or treated.

“Of significant concern to the Department is the wide variance in the census data provided to it by Morton Hospital from that reported by numerous sources both before and during the hearing,” the DPH letter states.

The DPH asked for Morton Hospital to provide additional data to clarify the census figures.

“We will certainly respond to and answer all the Department of Public Health’s questions,” Murphy said.

Morton Hospital nurse Joyce Wilkins, chairwoman of the MNA bargaining unit at the hospital, said the union will continue to be in contact with management and hopes the administration changes its mind about the pediatric unit.

 “I’m very happy this letter supports the community and identifies this as an essential service,” Wilkins said. “I’m hoping everything will work to keep this treasure here.

Muphy said the hospital does not intend to alter its plans.

“Our application with Department of Public Health has been submitted and is still in,” he said

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