Protesters rally outside Milwaukee City Hall in below-freezing temperatures on Dec. 20, 2022 to express their displeasure to Ascension St. Francis Hospital’s decision to close its labor and delivery unit. (Devin Blake / Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service)
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The looming closure of Ascension’s St. Francis Hospital Birthing Center — the only labor and delivery unit on Milwaukee South Side — is drawing strong pushback from healthcare workers and patients. 

Ascension, a Catholic nonprofit, is one of the largest private health care systems in the United States and has a large footprint in Milwaukee. Critics question the timing and lack of communication over a shutdown that will disproportionately affect the South Side’s heavy Latino population, and they wonder what the move foretells for St. Francis Hospital’s future. 

Wednesday was the last day for admission to the labor and delivery unit, and the last planned discharge is set for Friday, an Ascension Wisconsin spokesperson told Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, adding: “Labor and Delivery Unit associates will provide additional maternal and fetal expertise in the Ascension St. Francis Emergency Room through January 7.”

The Ascension spokesperson called the closure a “consolidation” of services that gives patients “access to the most comprehensive labor, delivery and postpartum services to all Ascension Wisconsin moms and babies.”

Closure sparks protest

Despite below-freezing temperatures, dozens of people gathered in front of Milwaukee City Hall on Tuesday to protest the closure.

“We are here because we all deserve better than this,” said Tracey Schwerdtfeger, a steward of the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses & Health Professionals (WFNHP) Local 5000, a union representing St. Francis employees. 

“Shame on you, Ascension,” she yelled into the mic.

“Shame,” the crowd yelled back.

The union organized the protest in the days after St. Francis administrators surprised staff with news of the closure.

‘Disorganized and inconsistent’

One St. Francis patient wondered why Ascension didn’t communicate earlier about the shutdown.

Crystal Vallance, a 33-year-old South Side resident, delivered her first child at St. Francis about two years ago and expected to have her second child there too — working with the same doctor.

But while scrolling through social media on Monday, Vallance learned that her care would be disrupted; She noticed a Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals alert about the unit’s closure.

She immediately reached out to her care team to verify the news. 

Vallance is in the second trimester of her pregnancy. During her first prenatal appointment in September, she said, staff told her that St. Francis was closing the labor and delivery unit during weekends. That would force women to go elsewhere if the babies picked a Saturday or Sunday to arrive. But Vallance said her care team expected a full reopening by December as the hospital hired more staff.

“Instead, I find out that they’re permanently closing labor and delivery,” she said. “It was obviously a surprise to my care team as well as to me. I’m sure there’s plenty of women who are closer to giving birth than I am. So merry Christmas, I guess.”

Jamie Lucas, executive director of WFNHP, called the lack of communication a problem.

“This whole thing is disorganized and inconsistent. We were told as recently as last week that the unit was not closing,” he said.

Lucas added that giving birth is such a “deeply personal and intimate experience” and because “so little is in our control about childbirth and our health, we have to get these things right. Where you are going to deliver; having a consistent provider – these are things we can’t afford to screw up.”

Closure adds hassles, barriers

The shakeup adds hassles for Vallance during an already stressful time, she said. Now she must pick a new hospital and a new doctor. The doctor she most trusts lacks admitting privileges to other hospitals, she was told.

Vallance, who lives about a 5-minute drive from St. Francis, must also map out a route to another hospital. Ascension’s St. Mary campus is about 15 minutes away, she said, and its St. Joseph campus is about 20 minutes away. Perhaps she’ll try a different option.

“If I have my druthers, it’s not going to be Ascension,” she said.

Aurora West Allis Medical Center is another option for expecting mothers, said Lucas, but traveling there presents similar barriers.

Vallance has reliable transportation access, and she sympathizes with those who face steeper barriers and are closer to their due dates. In the census tract surrounding St. Francis, at least 40% of residents aged 15 and older are non-drivers, according to a Wisconsin Department of Transportation mapping tool

“I think it’s very interesting that a nonprofit — a Christian-affiliated hospital — is continuously trying to pull away from people who need the most,” Vallance said.

A community organization with ties to Milwaukee’s South Side also voiced concerns.

“I think the biggest thing is – our surprise. That there wasn’t an effort to contact … patients themselves to forewarn about this closure, right during the holidays,” said Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the rights of immigrants and low-wage workers.

“The concern, of course, is that this is going to affect many of our members – largely Latina members – and their ability to quickly access a maternity ward,” she said.

In addition to transportation challenges, some residents face barriers around language, affordability, and – sometimes –immigration status, which “make it harder to be able to access health care,” said Neumann-Ortiz.

How did we get here?

Hospital administrators have not provided an explicit reason for the decision, Lucas said, but staff described what they believe has been an incremental dismantling of labor and delivery services at St. Francis. 

As providers left or retired, “Ascension has chosen not to replace or fill” these open positions, said Connie Smith, president of WFNHP.

Recent reporting by The New York Times revealed staffing shortages at other Ascension hospitals in the country, sometimes resulting in what health professionals said were unsafe conditions.

Ascension leaders declined to respond to a request for further comment on specific allegations about staffing, timing and impact.

But a spokesperson said: “Birthing services leaders will work hand-in-hand with obstetricians and parents-to-be to ensure a seamless transition of care.”

Smith made comparisons to other cuts at different Milwaukee-area hospitals within the Ascension system.

“I’ve lived this,” said Smith. “I started at St. Michael’s Hospital within the (Ascension) system. And they closed my labor and delivery unit. Prior to them closing my labor and delivery unit … they reduced services.”

The St. Michael campus closed in 2006, and Smith and her colleagues are “scared this is going to happen at our facility at St. Francis.”

More recently, residents and community members in the North Side expressed concern about the cutting of services at the St. Joseph campus in 2019.

What happens next?

Alderman Scott Spiker, who represents Milwaukee’s 13th District and attended the rally, said that this decision “doesn’t do anybody any good.”

“People should have a right to give birth in their home, in their communities,” he said.

Spiker said Ascension’s nonprofit status gives officials some room to influence the decision. 

“We have partnerships here. We have relationships we can leverage,” he said. “But in the end, we ultimately need folks to do the right thing. And we can lead them to that. But we can’t make them do that.”

“I’m confident we can at least get voices heard that maybe you wouldn’t hear otherwise,” he added. 

How to find new providers

For those who also need to contact potential providers, St. Mary’s unit is located at 2323 N. Lake Drive. The number is 414-585-1000

The unit at the St. Joseph campus is located at 5000 W. Chambers St. The number is 414-447-2000.

The Aurora Women’s Pavilion at Aurora West Allis Medical Center is located at 8905 W Lincoln Ave. The number is 414-328-6000.

The CARE Network of Wisconsin, an organization that provides childbearing education and resources relating to doulas, labor assistants and midwives, can be contacted via its website or Facebook page.

Jim Malewitz of Wisconsin Watch contributed reporting. A version of this story was first published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, a nonprofit news organization that covers Milwaukee’s diverse neighborhoods. 

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Devin Blake / Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service

Devin Blake started as a journalist at Patch, writing about the Southern California neighborhoods he grew up in. He focused on local business communities throughout the area and was drawn to stories about unemployment, worker resources, and businesses that were filling unmet needs in their communities.

Watching the homelessness crisis continue to deepen over those years, he began working as a resource and information coordinator for community groups and nonprofits so they could better serve populations without stable housing—populations that included the elderly, developmentally delayed and those with HIV/AIDs, among others.

Blake has contributed to a number of publications, including New York magazine, The Onion, and McSweeney’s. He loves spending time with his wife and negotiating with his 2-year-old son.