Ellwood City to rally round maternity ward

| Thursday, July 18, 2013, 11:03 p.m.

The size of Ellwood City Hospital's eight-bed maternity unit could be the thing that keeps it open, the hospital's lone obstetrician said Thursday.

Officials at the financially strained Lawrence County hospital announced in late June that the unit will close by year's end, saving about $200,000 a year.

“I don't think there was much of an effort put into what could be done to keep this department open prior to this decision being made,” said Dr. Joseph Ciocca, 51, who has practiced in Ellwood City for the past 12 years.

“At the very least, I would like to have seen more done to market what we have to offer. This is a small community hospital that can offer personalized care from a top-notch staff that people might find attractive if they knew about it,” he said.

People in Ellwood City are fighting to save the unit. They've scheduled a rally, started a petition drive and are getting help from area lawmakers.

But the hospital's acting president says a change of heart isn't likely.

“We are under financial constraints, and the (board's) decision was unanimous,” said Carolyn Izzo.

The rally to protest the planned closing is scheduled for 3 to 7 p.m. on Friday in the borough's community plaza on Lawrence Avenue.

State Rep. Jaret A. Gibbons, D-Beaver County, whose district includes Ellwood City, said she is scheduled to meet with hospital officials on Friday to see “if there is any possibility in getting them to reverse their decision.”

An online petition begun June 28 has collected 731 signatures. Organizers hope to deliver it the hospital on Wednesday.

The 70-bed hospital has reported losses of about $1.9 million in each of the past four years, according to Izzo.

“Our main concern is ensuring the long-term viability of the hospital, and the decision to close the (maternity) unit is the best way to achieve that,” Izzo said.

Ciocca said the unit, which consists of four, semi-private rooms, could be made more attractive — and marketable — if it was remodeled to include amenities common at other hospitals, such as private rooms with showers and reclining chairs to allow fathers or siblings to stay overnight.

“Not having these things in a maternity unit just isn't acceptable in the 21st century,” Ciocca said. “I know that adding them isn't cheap, but I think it could be a worthwhile investment.”

Births at the hospital declined 41.7 percent since 2007, when an average of 24 babies a month were delivered, officials said. The maternity unit has averaged 14 births a month this year.

“We know that it is an old department, but over the years very few questions have been raised about the need to make changes,” Izzo said. “I think the things being suggested now have simply become a rallying point.”

Although the state is facing its own financial difficulties, a matching grant for capital improvements might be available, Gibbons said.

“Losing the maternity ward will place a burden on some women, especially those who do not have the resources to travel a half hour to other facilities,” he said.

Joe Weidner, State Sen. Elder Vogel's district director, plans to attend the meeting on Friday. Vogel's district includes Ellwood City.

“Certainly if the hospital had put together a plan to keep the maternity ward open, we would fight for that in any way we can,” Weidner said.

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

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