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Women Fight to Save Remote Birthing Center

ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) - A hospital birthing center that closed in January should be ordered reopened to protect the health of women in isolated Port Jervis, N.Y., two women claim in state court.

Plaintiffs Sarah Fuller and Patricia Landa claim the state Department of Health erred when it allowed the four-bed birthing center at Bon Secours Community Hospital in the city to close.

"The effect of the challenged decision will be potentially catastrophic as it deprives the Port Jervis community of personnel, specifically doctors and nurses, who are trained in obstetrics and can manage medical emergencies," they say in the complaint in Albany County Supreme Court.

Port Jervis, about two hours southwest of Albany, sits at the point where New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania meet. The Tri-State Rock, a small granite monument with a bronze National Geodetic Survey plaque, marks a place in the city where visitors can stand in all three states at once.

The city is served by the 187-bed community hospital, a part of Bon Secours Charity Health System, which is headquartered about an hour away in Suffern.

Bon Secours, which also operates a hospital in Suffern and one in nearby Warwick, is named as a "necessary party" to the Article 78 complaint against the Department of Health.

The women say the state approved Bon Secours' application to end maternity services at the Port Jervis hospital in December, and allowed the birthing center to be closed within 30 days.

But the nearest hospital with similar services, Orange Regional Medical Center in Middletown, is 30 to 45 minutes away. And the trip there is "made much more difficult" by topography: Interstate 84, which intersects the city, climbs steeply north along the Shawangunk Ridge toward Middletown.

The mountain separates and isolates Port Jervis and makes driving treacherous in bad weather.

Fuller, who lives in Port Jervis, and Landa, who lives in neighboring Deerpark, are women of "child-bearing age" affected by the decision to close the birthing center, they say in the complaint.

Both expected to give birth there: Fuller, a first-time mother, was due just before the birthing center was to close, and Landa, who has had a high-risk pregnancy and lost one child, was due to have her sixth child in March.

They and others in the community tried to save the birthing center, beginning in late 2011, when word of the plan leaked out.

The hospital "failed to provide any notice to the community of its application to the DOH [Department of Health] for the closure," the women say.

When the plan became known, supporters organized letter-writing campaigns, traveled to Albany to meet with state officials and held public meetings.

Hospital officials wanted to close the center not for budget reasons but because too few births were occurring - fewer than 500 annually, according to the complaint.

Supporters called that an "arbitrary number" that had not been met in any of the 20 preceding years. They say they "found good reason" to explain the decline in births in "the conduct of the hospital itself."

"[T]here had been no sudden diminution in the number of births, and any decline was attributed to the hospital's own termination of medical practices which were delivering babies in its unit and its failure to replace this practice group," according to the complaint.

While it appeared in the summer of 2012 that the Department of Health was leaning toward allowing the birthing center to remain open, on Dec. 21 the agency announced in a conference call with supporters that the shutdown had just been approved.

"In allowing those services to be closed and discontinued, the DOH ignored the overwhelming community sentiment and violated its duty to insure that public health, safety and welfare be reflected in its decision-making," the complaint states.

The agency offered no rationale for the decision, which the complaint calls "arbitrary, capricious and contrary to law as it endangers the health, welfare and safety of the petitioners and thousands of similarly situated women in the catchment area" of the hospital.

The need for the birthing center is as great as it ever was, the women say.

"If anything, the economic downturn and the growing immiseration of the population in Port Jervis and neighboring communities makes more, not less, critical the availability of proximate maternity services."

They ask the court to order Bon Secours to "forthwith resume" the hospital's maternity services.

They are represented by Michael Sussman of Sussman & Watkins in Goshen.

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