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Hundreds join petition drive to keep open maternity ward at Ellwood City Hospital

| Saturday, July 6, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Bobbi Morton confesses she's getting a little nervous about giving birth in late October.

Her anxiety has less to do with childbirth than where the baby will be born.

“This is my fifth child, so I'm pretty sure I know what to expect,” said Morton, 37, of Ellwood City. “But I'm a little concerned about where I'll end up having this baby.”

Morton is one of 460 people who signed an online petition created as of Saturday afternoon to persuade Ellwood City Hospital officials not to follow through with a plan to close the eight-bed maternity ward by the end of the year.

Morton's four children were born at Ellwood City.

The petition will be presented to the hospital's board of directors.

Health care experts say the elimination of units at small hospitals is part of a trend.

Carolyn Izzo, Ellwood City Hospital's acting president, said closing the obstetrics unit is an economic decision that officials did not take lightly.

“We're committed to keeping this hospital open,” Izzo said. “But the fact is, we are facing a declining number of births at the hospital along with financial losses and other challenges. We understand that this affects many people's lives, but this extremely difficult decision was necessary for our long-term viability.”

Births at the 70-bed Lawrence County hospital declined 41.7 percent since 2007, when doctors delivered an average of 24 babies a month. The unit has averaged 14 births a month this year, Izzo said.

In each of the past four years, the hospital reported losses of about $1.9 million. Closing the obstetrics unit is expected to save about $200,000 a year, she said.

Izzo cited competition from hospitals in New Castle, Beaver and Butler and difficulty in attracting physicians. Only one doctor on staff specializes in obstetrics and gynecology, she said.

“Part of our problem has been, and always will be, the small size of our facility,” she said. “Physicians need a certain number of patients to build their practice, but that is often difficult to do in a small town.”

Ellwood City's population in 2011 was 7,872, down 0.6 percent from 7,921, the previous year, according to the Census.

Morton said the small size of the hospital is precisely what makes it attractive.

“My sister had a child in one of the other local hospitals and felt that she was just a number instead of a person,” she said. “And that was at a hospital located in this area. I can't imagine what it would be like at big medical center.”

Joanna McAfee, who started the online petition, said she was “angry” that the hospital failed to conduct public discussions before announcing its decision.

“We were seriously blind-sided by this,” said McAfee, 37, of Ellwood City, whom pregnant women can hire as a labor “doula,” or coach, to provide assistance before, during and after giving birth. “There were no community meetings to discuss this. There weren't even rumors floating around that give us a hint.”

Patricia Raffaele of the Hospital Council of Western Pennsylvania said although it is “unlikely that we'll see a ton of small hospitals closing,” community hospitals are forced to examine services they offer to determine which they can afford.

“Obstetrics units are often looked at because of the high cost for medical malpractice insurance required to operate them,” she said, noting that the high premiums often are the result of significant awards from juries that consider the long-term cost of caring for a child harmed by medical malpractice.

Raffaele said more than a dozen small hospitals in Eastern Pennsylvania have closed obstetrics units since 2007.

“Because of the (small) populations they serve, these hospitals often find it difficult to operate without making changes, which often means closing specialty units that can't be supported by the population being served,” she said.

Tony LaRussa is a Trib Total Media staff writer. He can be reached at 412-320-7987 or tlarussa@tribweb.com.

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