"I am proud to say I was born at Mercy Fitzgerald," said Sister Kathleen Keenan, a senior vice president of Mercy Health System, based in Conshohocken. "This was a very painful decision, for me personally and for all of us, but it was a necessary one."
The 17-bed maternity unit lost more than $2 million last year and expected a similar deficit this year, despite shutting down its neonatal intensive-care nursery in October, said Sister Donna Watto, a Mercy Health System spokeswoman.
Mercy Fitzgerald faces the same malpractice and financial pressures as other hospitals, but it is also coping with changing demographics. Because of a dwindling number of women of childbearing age in Delaware County and Southwest Philadelphia, the hospital projected only 595 deliveries this year - fewer than two a day, Watto said.
About 44 full- and part-time physicians, nurses, and support staff will be laid off from the hospital at Lansdowne Avenue and Baily Road, officials there said. At least two ob-gyns will continue to provide gynecological services.
Despite the recent maternity unit closures, 31 hospitals in the region are still delivering babies, including Delaware County Memorial Hospital, which is also on Lansdowne Avenue.
"It's not like that part of Delaware County doesn't have another [maternity] service," said Joanne Fischer, executive director of the Maternity Care Coalition, a regional advocacy and service group. "But if ob-gyn is a losing proposition, does that mean more and more hospitals are going to be ditching it? It is worrisome."
Peggy Wilkers, a labor and delivery nurse who heads the nurses' union at Mercy Fitzgerald, said, "We're concerned that the diverse community served by the labor and delivery unit at Mercy Fitzgerald will be severely burdened. . . . We question whether Delaware Community Memorial Hospital has the capacity to absorb the deliveries."
Andrew Wigglesworth, president of the Delaware Valley Healthcare Council, said the closing is "one more vivid example of the ongoing threat to access posed by liability insurance crisis."
Of the five hospitals in the Mercy Health System, only Mercy Suburban in Norristown will still have a maternity unit.
But Mercy Suburban has drastically cut back its contract with the Maternity Care Coalition's MOMobile, as have Delaware County Memorial Hospital, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, and Albert Einstein Medical Center, Fischer said. The MOMobile provides outreach and home visitation to low-income mothers.
Next week, the legislature is expected once again to debate bills that address the rising cost of malpractice insurance for doctors and hospitals. Proposed legislative fixes range from a constitutional amendment that would cap certain awards in lawsuits to putting physician profiles on the Internet so patients can examine the disciplinary and malpractice history of their doctors.
Mercy Health System is the largest Catholic health-care system serving the Philadelphia area and is a member of Catholic Health East, cosponsored by 13 religious congregations and Hope Ministries.
Contact staff writer Marie McCullough at 215-854-2720 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Staff writer Dan Hardy contributed to this article.