Hartford HealthCare stopped labor and delivery services at Windham Hospital in 2020 but the request to permanently close the unit was denied by the state.

The Office of Health Strategy issued an initial denial of Hartford HealthCare’s application to shutter the labor and delivery unit at Windham Hospital, according to a proposed final decision published on July 5. 

The decision found that, among other potential negative outcomes, the plan to terminate labor and delivery at Windham could exacerbate existing health inequities, diminish access, increase costs, and limit patient choice in the region. 

A spokesperson from the Office of Health Strategy confirmed that Hartford HealthCare now has 21 days to appeal and request an oral argument. At that point the application would appear before the interim executive director or deputy director of OHS, who then would have the final say to uphold, reverse, or modify the decision. 

OHS could not comment on the specifics of the application because the case is still technically open. However, the spokesperson did say that in the past there have been decisions that have been modified as well as reversed. 

A spokesperson from Hartford HealthCare stated that the company is “deeply disappointed” with the proposed finding. “We are reviewing our legal options which include the possibility of appealing,” the company stated.

But Attorney General William Tong, who submitted comments to the Office Health Strategy expressing his concerns about the application to close the unit, applauded the initial decision Wednesday.

“This is the right decision for the health and safety of mothers and babies in the Windham area. Asking parents to travel another 25-45 minutes to undergo a major medical procedure at a different hospital would have created an additional burden and risk. I thank the Office of Health Strategy for carefully considering these critical factors, and for this draft decision,” Tong said.

Community members who have banded together to fight the proposed closure are celebrating the interim decision as a sign that their voices have been heard.

“I feel very, very hopeful,” said Brenda Buchbinder, a resident of Willimantic and member of the community group “Windham United to Save Our Healthcare.”

She added, “The review of the data and the needs of the community were done very carefully by OHS. It’s reassuring that there is an organization to look at core services and health care needs of the area.”

John Brady, vice president of AFT CT, a union that represents 30,000 members, including nurses and health care professionals at Windham Hospital, also said that, even though the company is likely to appeal, the decision still holds meaning for the community.

“We are pleased with this decision by OHS. The community of Windham has worked hard to protect labor and delivery, and our union members are proud to be a part of that fight. Although we expect Hartford HealthCare to appeal, this represents a big win for the community,” said Brady.

Hartford HealthCare stopped labor and delivery services at Windham in June 2020. Three months later, the hospital filed an application to close the unit permanently, citing patient safety concerns and difficulty recruiting health care providers as the main reasons for the closure.

Hartford HealthCare addressed this issue in its statement on Wednesday. “After years of declining births (an average of two per week) and obstetrical recruitment challenges, it has become impossible to provide a safe, quality childbirth experience at Windham Hospital due to departures of obstetricians and trained staff.”

Some clinical research has demonstrated that low birth counts can cause reduced safety outcomes, but the OHS hearing officer said the evidence was limited and noted that “diminished access also plays a significant role in obstetric outcomes.”

The company added, “We have a plan for childbirth in the Windham area that provides high-quality, coordinated care for mothers and their babies at a hospital of the mother’s choice, including transportation.”

But the hearing officer took issue with the lack of details in the company’s transportation plan, including how it would be funded.

With respect to difficulties with recruiting, the officer wrote that “while it does appear that the Hospital made some effort to obtain coverage for several years, it did not pursue all avenues available to it” and failed in its application to provide “step-by-step actions that were taken to recruit and retain staff.”

CT Mirror reporter Dave Altimari contributed to this story.

Katy Golvala is a member of our three-person investigative team. Originally from New Jersey, Katy earned a bachelor’s degree in English and Mathematics from Williams College and received a master’s degree in Business and Economic Journalism from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in August 2021. Her work experience includes roles as a Business Analyst at A.T. Kearney, a Reporter and Researcher at Investment Wires, and a Reporter at Inframation, covering infrastructure in Latin America and the Caribbean.