Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service

Protests Assail Ascension For Closing St. Francis Birthing Center

Ascension is dismantling southside hospital, president of state nursing group charges.

By , Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service - Jan 8th, 2023 01:01 pm
Demonstrators gather Wednesday to protest the closure of Ascension St. Francis Hospital Birthing Center outside one of the homes of an executive of Ascension Wisconsin. Photo by Devin Blake/NNS.

Demonstrators gather Wednesday to protest the closure of Ascension St. Francis Hospital Birthing Center outside one of the homes of an executive of Ascension Wisconsin. Photo by Devin Blake/NNS.

After Ascension Wisconsin provided a fuller explanation this week about its decision to close the Ascension St. Francis Hospital Birthing Center, critics continue to voice their displeasure.

In a statement to local media on Wednesday, an Ascension Wisconsin spokesperson called the closure of the birthing center  “a clinical decision.”

“Ascension St. Francis Hospital is no longer able to provide birthing services due to a combination of the loss of our obstetrical providers and low birthing volumes,” the spokesperson said.

“While we have had two providers delivering babies at Ascension St. Francis, one physician recently departed our system and the other announced retirement effective at the end of December 2022,” the spokesperson said.

But critics continue to stress the ways in which the closure creates serious barriers to adequate medical care for South Side residents, many of whom are immigrant Spanish-speakers, Latino and other people of color.

Jamie Lucas, executive director of Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, or WFNHP, the union that represents staff at St. Francis, takes issue with the spokesperson’s statements about the number of providers and the rate of births.

“For years, we’ve had conversations with them about meaningfully pursuing other providers to work out of the hospital, to keep services afloat. This goes years back,” he said. “They just let it go through attrition and didn’t fill positions …. .”

He added that he was informed of some providers who were interested in working there in the past but who were not offered competitive salaries.

And the rate of birth at St. Francis goes “hand in hand” with the issue of number of providers, he said.

According to data provided by Ascension Wisconsin, birthrates declined far more rapidly at St. Francis than at the two other Ascension locations now closest to the South Side: Ascension Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital and Ascension SE Wisconsin Hospital, St. Joseph Campus.

The difference in decline shows that the dwindling numbers of births at St. Francis is “not organic,” said Lucas. “If there aren’t multiple providers there, you’re not going to have high numbers of births. They suppressed the number of providers … so the numbers obviously dropped.”

According to Ascension, since 2017, the rate of births at St. Mary’s declined roughly 14%; at St. Joseph’s, the rate declined roughly 33%; and at St. Francis, the rate declined roughly 48%.

According to state data, birthrates generally have been falling. In 2010, there were 12 births per 1,000 in population. In 2020, that had dropped to 10.4 per 1,000.

A few days after the initial announcement of the closure, WHFNP held a demonstration at Milwaukee City Hall. Demonstrators held another rally Wednesday – this time outside the home of Bernie Sherry, ministry market executive of Ascension Wisconsin.

According to Ascension’s website, Sherry has “led the integration of Ascension Wisconsin’s four legacy health systems to provide one integrated faith-based healthcare system.”

Organizers stated the reason for the location of the rally was to highlight the financial reasons they believe are the actual reason for the closure. They contend these reasons prioritize the pockets of a few executives over the clinical needs of patients.

“Since 2016, Ascension has slowly dismantled St. Francis Hospital. But we will not let them place profit over patients,” Connie Smith, president of WHFNP, said during the rally. “Bernie Sherry, you had your hands in this.”

Current options for care

According to the statement from Ascension Wisconsin, it intends to direct those in need of birthing and labor services to other Ascension locations, especially the St. Mary’s campus.

This plan, however, ignores similar staffing problems at St. Mary’s, said Tracey Schwerdtfeger, steward of WFNHP Local 5000, the chapter representing St. Francis employees. “We’re not seeing that upper management truly cares about the staffing crisis – that is not only happening at St. Francis but all their other facilities. … St. Mary’s is a great example. … That unit is understaffed, too, so for them (Ascension Wisconsin) to say they are concerned about understaffing … it just doesn’t make any sense.”

Both St. Mary’s and St. Joseph’s are roughly 15 to 20 minutes by car from the South Side. This distance does not take into account the barriers to care, like transportation, on the South Side, said Lucas. These locations would be a lengthy bus ride for those who depend on public transportation.

Ascension Wisconsin has created an environment in which patients must now “travel outside of their community” to get services– a largely “Latino, immigrant and brown-skinned community,”  Smith said.

After the rally, Lucas and Schwerdtfeger expressed their belief that this is a problem that can be fixed.  “We believe that Ascension has the resources to be able to reopen,” Schwerdtfeger said.

But Alderwoman JoCasta Zamarripa, of the 8th District, expressed skepticism after the rally.

“I had hoped that maybe we could try to advocate, but I did speak with Ascension’s leadership once – I didn’t find them willing to move. Even to hold off on the decision. That was very disheartening,” she said.

Ascension Wisconsin declined to go on the record and for attribution responding to specific allegations by WFNHP or its other critics about its closure explanation.

How to find new providers

For those who need to contact potential providers, St. Mary’s unit is located at 2323 N. Lake Dr. The number is 414-585-1000

The unit at the St. Joseph campus is located at 5000 W. Chambers St. The number is 414-447-2000.

The Aurora Women’s Pavilion at Aurora West Allis Medical Center is located at 8905 W. Lincoln Ave. The number is 414-328-6000.

The CARE Network of Wisconsin, an organization that provides childbearing education and resources relating to doulas, labor assistants and midwives, can be contacted via its website or Facebook page.

Critics of decision to close Ascension St. Francis Birthing Center continue protests was originally published by the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service.

2 thoughts on “Protests Assail Ascension For Closing St. Francis Birthing Center”

  1. GodzillakingMKE says:

    Upper management only cares about getting richer off the backs of others. Just like insurance executives Acesnsion is terrible and left them years ago.

  2. BigRed81 says:

    I recall when Ascention CEO, Bernie Sherry, tried to close St. Joseph’s Hospital on the north side. Fortunately, it didn’t happen.
    Currently, St Francis is the target in Milwaukee.
    Ascension is one of the largest such entities in the country. They have the money to provide adequate staff, equipment, etc to provide all services to patients.
    His “business plan” is to under invest in hospitals, causing significant problems, which he then uses to justify eliminating departments.
    Read what he did to Chicago hospitals. He conducts himself more like a hedge fund hustler than a non-profit leader.
    It’s past time for him to be replaced.

    When hospitals were founded, Nurses were Catholic Nuns. That’s why the hospitals have Saint names & non-profit status. Ascension took
    those over.

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