Thursday, June 20, 2024

Merline Sylvain-Williams at a Wednesday rally in Harvard Square with a sign referring to Cambridge Health Alliance fully reopening its Cambridge Birth Center. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The optimism over a reopening of the Cambridge Birth Center shown at a Wednesday rally was overblown or at least premature, according to a letter sent to city councillors.

Cambridge Health Alliance closed the center at 10 Camelia Ave., Mid-Cambridge, early in the Covid pandemic but failed to reopen it as other businesses emerged from the crisis. The unannounced moves drew criticism from councillor Marc McGovern – a two-time client at the midwifery-led center for less-expensive, more natural births outside hospital settings – and a Sept. 12 policy order from councillor Patricia Nolan calling for its reopening.

By last week, Beth Israel Lahey Health was being protested for closing its free-standing North Shore Birth Center in Beverly and CHA was being praised in rally speeches and signs. One said “Cambridge can save their health center. Why can’t you, BILH?”

A letter from Cambridge Health Alliance chief executive Assaad Sayah that appears on Monday’s council agenda makes no promise to return the birth center to full operation, though.

“While CHA continues to provide midwifery services at the Cambridge Birth Center and across its system, staffing shortages, programmatic issues, facility concerns and significant cost issues have led CHA to keep performing all deliveries in its McGovern Maternity Suite,” Sayah says in the letter.

A consultant has been brought in to do a comprehensive assessment of “whether CHA can safely provide deliveries at the existing Cambridge Birth Center,” Sayah says, calling the underlying issues “complicated and intertwined issues.”

Reopening cited as “likely”

Judy Norsigian of Our Bodies Ourselves told the rally the Cambridge Birth Center was “likely to be reopened in the near future.” That was followed by Emily Anesta, president of the Bay State Birth Coalition, remarking that its reopening – and the coming of one to Boston next year – didn’t make up for the loss of a center on the North Shore, especially since Massachusetts now has only one, in Northampton.

After the letter was brought to the attention of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, leaders responded in a Friday statement that “certified nurse midwives at CHA do have concerns about the future of the birth center, [which] is an essential service to the community.”

“These centers provide a holistic, family-centered birthing experience with excellent outcomes for mothers and babies and must be maintained,” the Massachusetts Nurses Association said.

Confidence in CHA process

Merline Sylvain-Williams, a Cambridge doula, was at the rally holding the bright pink sign praising Cambridge Health Alliance for saving its health center and asking why Beth Israel Lahey Health could’t do the same – but she said Sunday that it was a sign grabbed from a stack made available to protesters as they arrived in Harvard Square on Wednesday.

Sylvain-Williams still wasn’t willing to say the sign was inaccurate. Based on a meeting with state Rep. Marjorie Decker, who has been advocating for the reopening of the Cambridge Birth Center, the sign was “influenced by feedback that we received … we were told that Cambridge is in the process of having conversations and that they would not allow the birth center to close.”

“It sounded like from what we were told that wasn’t going to be the case,” Sylvain-Williams said.  Based on Decker’s report, “Cambridge is doing everything that they possibly can to make sure that the birth center stays open – there’s conversation happening, as opposed to at Beverly Hospital with Beth Israel Lahey, where their minds are set.”