A hearing officer of the Office of Health Strategy has recommended to deny Hartford Healthcare’s application to shut down the maternity unit of Windham Hospital in a proposed final decision released on Tuesday.

Hartford Healthcare’s plan to replace the Windham Hospital obstetrics unit was to transport patients to Backus Hospital in Norwich, which is a 30-minute drive. Windham Hospital had 64 births in the 2020 fiscal year, down from the average of just over 100 births per year in the three years prior. 

“The lack of adequate access to labor and delivery facilities and services for women in rural areas has led to documented increases in out-of-hospital births, births in hospitals without obstetrics services, and poorer birth outcomes,” the hearing officer wrote in the decision. “Travel time of twenty (20) minutes or more by car is associated with an increased risk of mortality and adverse outcomes in women at term, which should be considered in connection with plans to centralize obstetric care.”

Windham Hospital is one of the smallest in the state, holding 130 beds and 14 bassinets. Hartford Healthcare cited a downturn in births at the hospital and a lack of staffing and healthcare providers at the hospital as reasons for the proposed closure.

“Windham OB was, and would have continued to be, an extremely fragile service that was unable to consistently staff the unit and deliver babies with enough regularity to maintain skills and competencies,” said Adam Borgida, chief OB/GYN at Hartford Hospital.

The hearing officer cited the low-income community of Windham as a reason to keep the maternity unit open. The Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development ranked it the most economically distressed municipality in the state last year.

“The decline in rural hospitals offering obstetric services has contributed to a rise in health risks and mortality in some of the country’s most medically underserved areas,” the hearing officer wrote.

John Rodis, founder and president of Arista Health, supported the plan to close the Windham Hospital obstetrics unit and transport patients instead to Backus Hospital.

“In my professional opinion, this is the right choice for patient safety. Women will be safer delivering in local high-volume OB units, which are better equipped to meet their needs and the needs of their babies,” Rodis said.

Attorney General William Tong also praised the OHS’s decision to deny the request.

“This is the right decision for the health and safety of mothers and babies in the Windham area,” Tong said. “Asking parents to travel another 25-45 minutes to undergo a major medical procedure at a different hospital would have created an additional burden and risk.”

Hartford Healthcare voiced its disappointment with the decision following its release.

“As our Certificate of Need application explained, and as experts testified, after years of declining births (an average of two per week) and obstetrical recruitment challenges, it has become impossible to provide a safe, quality childbirth experience at Windham Hospital due to departures of obstetricians and trained staff,” Hartford Healthcare said in a statement.