OAKDALE -- Tight finances could force Oak Valley Hospital out of the business of delivering babies.
The hospital's governing board this month will consider closing the six-bed maternity ward, perhaps as soon as July 1.
The unit loses about $750,000 a year, mainly because of inadequate payments for Medi-Cal patients, said John McCormick, the hospital's chief executive officer.
"The nurses are certainly terrific and we like what the doctors do, but from my perspective, it's just not in our interest to continue the program," he said.
The loss of the maternity ward would mean that families would go to hospitals in Modesto, Turlock, Manteca or elsewhere for labor and delivery. McCormick said other hospitals handle about three-fourths of the births for residents of the Oak Valley Hospital District.
The hospital, which delivers about 250 babies a year, serves Oakdale, Waterford, Knights Ferry, Riverbank, Escalon and nearby areas. It is one of the smallest in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
Oak Valley's maternity ward has about 20 of the hospital's roughly 500 employees. The nurses and other workers, faced with layoffs in a tight job market, are urging supporters to turn out at meetings on the proposal this week and next.
Denise Davis, a registered nurse in the unit for 14 years, said it has become a part of the social fabric of the Oakdale area since opening in 1973.
"People have had second, third and fourth generations born there," she said. "It's a smaller, more intimate place for our new additions to the community."
The district board could vote Feb. 25 on the closure. Oak Valley would continue to provide prenatal services.
Board president Dan Cummins said the maternity ward does not attract many of the privately insured patients the hospital needs to assure its future.
"We can't do that with one department being so far in the red," he said.
Hospitals around the state are wrestling with which services to cut and which to keep as Medi-Cal payments continue to fall short, said Jan Emerson-Shea, vice president for external affairs at the California Hospital Association in Sacramento.
"The whole labor and delivery and maternity area is one of the major areas of Medi-Cal services," she said.
Oak Valley opened a new main hospital last year, but left the maternity ward in the older portion. It was supposed to be among the departments that eventually move into the upper floor of the new building, once funding becomes available.
Would affect other units
Davis said closing the ward would mean less business for other hospital functions, such as the laboratory, anesthesia and food serv-ice.
Heidi Clavin, another registered nurse, noted something else: "No more babies will be born in Oakdale. They will be born in Modesto. It will affect our community."
The hospital is governed by a board with five elected and five appointed members. The latter includes a representative of the Dignity Health chain, formerly Catholic Healthcare West, which has a management contract with the hospital.
Emerson-Shea, with the hospital association, said the decision will be a tough one.
"No one wants to close any kind of service," she said, "particularly a labor-delivery department, which is one of the more positive things the joy of a new baby."
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2385.
Oak Valley Hospital will hold community meetings on the proposed maternity ward closure Wednesday and Feb. 20. Both will be at 6 p.m. in the Royal Oak and Charter Oak rooms at the hospital, 1425 W. H St., Oakdale.
The hospital's governing board is scheduled to consider the closure at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 27, same location. It could take effect July 1 or later.