Financially struggling Santa Paula Memorial Hospital will stop offering maternity care next month because a nursing shortage is making it difficult to keep the obstetrics unit open, a hospital trustee said Friday.
The decision reached this week by the hospital's board of directors is the latest setback to hit the 42-year-old hospital, which is operating with a $3.5-million debt. The small medical center serves the Santa Clara River Valley communities of Piru, Fillmore and Santa Paula, and provides the region's only emergency room.
"We made the decision to suspend the beds, effective Dec. 13," trustee Carol Burhoe said.
Santa Paula Memorial will accept obstetrics patients only in emergencies, such as when a woman cannot be transferred safely to another hospital, said nursing director Karin Lyders.
The equivalent of nine full-time nurses is needed to operate the maternity ward 24 hours a day, but Santa Paula Memorial was down to five because of attrition, Lyders said. She said she was forced to recommend suspending obstetrics after trying unsuccessfully to hire more nurses.
The hospital's deepening financial instability makes it unattractive to potential employees looking for job security, and the ailing hospital cannot afford cash incentives that competing hospitals offer to attract applicants amid a nationwide shortage of skilled nurses.
A nursing registry that had been providing part-time obstetrics nurses to the hospital did not have enough workers to fill Santa Paula Memorial's need, Lyders said.
"We advertised for nurses in all departments, but there were no takers," she said. "OB nurses who work through the registry are pretty rare, and it was becoming very difficult to replace people through normal attrition."
Lyders said she did not know how long the maternity ward would be closed, but the hospital asked the state Department of Health Services for permission to suspend operations anywhere from six months to three years.
In recent weeks, Santa Paula Memorial has experienced a number of setbacks that have put its future in doubt. The Ventura County public health system backed out of partnership talks, the private Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura rejected a request to begin negotiations, the hospital laid off seven non-medical employees to cut costs, and the chief executive officer left for another facility.
However, the cities of Santa Paula and Fillmore are pushing to restart talks with the county by agreeing to pay for a mediator.
Once the maternity ward closes, it will be the first time obstetrics care has been unavailable at the hillside hospital.
"It's a painful thing to do," Lyders said. "I started out at the hospital in obstetrics."
About 850 babies are born each year to families in the Santa Clara River Valley. Last year, 282 were born at the Santa Paula hospital, which means the majority of deliveries took place at Ventura County Medical Center, Community Memorial or St. John's Regional Medical Center in Oxnard.
Lyders said the five obstetrics nurses currently on staff either will get jobs in other departments or at other hospitals.