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Women Protest Plan to Shut Birth Center : Medicine: Mothers-to-be lament loss of homelike environment for delivering babies. Hospital officials say they must cut financial losses.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hospital officials have decided to temporarily close the Santa Clarita Valley’s only outpatient birth center, a decision that sparked a protest Friday by pregnant women in rocking chairs.

“This puts me in the position where I have to switch hospitals, which I don’t want to do,” said Kindall Riggi, 19, who sat in a rocking chair in front of Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital in Valencia. Eight months pregnant, she needed the consent of her doctor to attend the small rally, which was held to protest the hospital’s decision to close the homelike Outpatient Birthing Center on Feb. 1 as part of an effort to cut financial losses.

Several women held protest signs in one hand and infants in the other, or pushed baby strollers. Pink and blue balloons floated in the breeze.

A short distance away, two hospital officials watched the protest. “We sympathize with the demonstration and the reason they’re here,” said Caroline Korth, director of public relations.

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Does that mean they might change their minds and keep the center open?

“No,” she said in unison with Wendy Jackson, vice president of planning and marketing. They said the center would be reopened only when the number of patients justifies it.

The board of directors of the Santa Clarita Health Care Assn., the hospital’s parent company, voted Jan. 18 to suspend operations at the birth center, citing a slowdown in housing construction. Fewer houses mean fewer women residents than had been expected to use the facility.

The center consists of labor and delivery rooms that are designed to resemble a home-birth environment, with VCRs in the rooms and pullout beds for fathers.

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The closure is part of a cost-cutting plan imposed throughout the hospital. The hospital had expected to lose $1 million during the 1991 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, but in just the first two months losses reached $600,000.

David Tumilty, chief financial officer, also blamed the fiscal problems in part on losses from treating Medicare patients and on the opening of two new facilities, one housing the birth center and the other a treatment facility for drug and alcohol problems and psychiatric patients.

Closure of the birth center came as a surprise to medical experts, because the trend is in the opposite direction. A number of hospitals have been opening similar centers to attract the growing number of women who prefer alternatives to standard hospital birth. In the birth center, a woman is able to go through labor and delivery in the same room.

“I don’t understand why such a center would close,” said Dr. Arthur Wifot, chief of obstetrics and gynecology at South Bay Hospital in Redondo Beach. “The patient demand for these services is high.”

The birthing center has been a big success since it opened four years ago, he said. Northridge Hospital Medical Center recently opened a similar facility, which, hospital officials said, operates at capacity.

The Valencia hospital, which had expected 25 to 35 deliveries a month, never had more than 16 a month. But unlike the South Bay facility, the Valencia birth center cannot handle high-risk pregnancies, which one medical observer, who asked not to be identified, speculated could lead some doctors to avoid using it.

Jackson said doctors in the Santa Clarita Valley have been receptive. She also said that if a problem develops in the birth center the patient can quickly be transported to the main hospital, about 150 yards away.

Peggy Richan, 21, of Newhall, in her ninth month of pregnancy, protested from a lawn chair. She said she cannot understand the closure because “everybody I talk to said they would love to go to the birthing center.”

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