In a closed-session vote Wednesday, the board of Washington, D.C.’s only public hospital decided to close its nursery and delivery rooms.
As the Washington Post reports, now the women of Southeast D.C. (which is predominantly black and low-income) have even fewer maternal-health options.
Not only is the decision potentially devastating to pregnant women in Southeast, but the manner in which the decision was made was shady as all hell.
According to the Post, regulators shut down United Medical Center’s obstetrics ward after finding “serious medical errors in the treatment of pregnant women and newborns.” UMC had been closed since early August, but many in the community—including elected officials and maternal-health advocates—had said they wanted to see the ward reopen.
LaRuby May, chairwoman of the UMC board, said that the hospital decided to shut down the obstetrics ward because of financial and safety concerns.
“Our decision is really based on the needs of the community,” May told the Post. “Mothers had already decided that we’re not the place where they want to be.”
But the decision could further jeopardize the health of women in Southeast D.C., an area that is predominantly black. Although most women living in wards 7 and 8 (citizens of those wards are most likely to visit the hospital) give birth in other parts of the city, the Post notes that UMC provided a place for the women of Southeast to give birth in emergencies. It also served as a “de facto clinic, providing prenatal care to walk-ins.”
Here’s the really shady part: The closed-door vote may have been illegal. At the very least, UMC is being opaque enough about its decision that it warrants a closer look.
For example, Chairwoman May said that she couldn’t provide the Post with the final vote tally on the resolution to shut down the obstetrics ward—and failed to give a reason. The legal rationale for the voting on the resolution behind closed doors was also “unclear.” According to the paper:
While private discussions are common for matters involving contracts, personnel matters and litigation, boards usually reconvene in public for votes.
May said she had been advised by the board’s lawyer that the closed session was proper but could not cite any specific statutory exemption that justified voting in private.
The director of the D.C. Office of Open Government, Traci Hughes, also told the paper that the city’s Open Meetings Act forbids public bodies like UMC from voting on a resolution in closed session.
The decision comes at a time when new reports chronicling the racial disparities in maternal health care are making waves. One study cited by a recent NPR investigation found that black women were 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy- or childbirth-related causes than their white peers.
Vincent C. Gray, the D.C. council member representative for Ward 7 and chair of the council’s health committee, said that the UMC board’s decision “sends a powerfully negative message” to Southeast D.C.
“It says that, in terms of the allocation and equity of services, the people on the East End of the city are seen as not sufficiently worthy to have available to them one of the most important services a population can have,” Gray said.
Gray added that he would like to review the board’s decision in a future public hearing.
Read more at the Washington Post.