SHARON – It’s official, Sharon Regional Medical Center confirmed reports Thursday that it intends to close the maternity unit at its on or around Dec. 31.
The decision means UPMC Horizon Shenango Valley hospital in Farrell will be Mercer County’s sole child birthing center. UPMC Jameson in Lawrence County said it sends most of its child birthing patients to Farrell. Jameson closed its own labor and delivery department in 2015, leaving Lawrence County without any maternity hospitals.
Sharon Regional didn’t say how many worked in the department. But employees told The Herald it has a staff of 21 nurses and one aide.
“We will be offering opportunities to all affected employees to remain with the organization,’’ Rochelle Penman, a Sharon Regional spokeswoman said in a news release.
Steward Health Care System, a Dallas-based, for-profit healthcare provider, bought Sharon Regional in 2017.
In the news release, Penman said the hospital’s decision to close the unit was difficult. But reduced patient demand and staffing challenges heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic left no alternatives.
“Many of these factors predated by years Steward’s ownership of the facility,’’ she said. “As part of our overall commitment to patients, we consistently evaluate the breadth of our services to ensure we are aligned to provide the best possible healthcare for our community.’’
By law, a hospital system must give the state advance notice, typically 60 to 90 days, if it plans to close a major service. Steward made the required notification, Penman said.
Although the state could nix closing the unit, there’s almost no chance of that happening, given dwindling numbers of patients walking through the maternity doors and the industry trend of consolidating these centers.
That trend has already hit the area.Grove City Medical Center — then an independent hospital — in 2014 closed its birthing services. In 2020 the hospital was bought by Pittsburgh-based Allegheny Health Network, creating the new AHN Grove City.
“Centralizing birthing centers are the norm, not the exception,’’ JoAnne Clobus, an AHN Grove City spokeswoman, said Thursday.
In 2007 UPMC Horizon closed its Greenville birth center and consolidated that service to its Farrell hospital. Ellwood City Hospital in Lawrence County shuttered its birthing center in 2013, a precursor to the hospital’s full closure in 2020 after years of financial struggles.
Horizon is ready to accept any Sharon Regional maternity patients, said Lisa Lombardo, a UPMC spokeswoman.
“Our providers are accepting new patients, and we’re here for the community and moms,’’ she said.
Steward acknowledged the realities it faced.
“With the current demographics of Mercer County, it is difficult to sustain redundant programs at two health systems that are within 2 miles of each other,’’ Penman said in the news release, referring to Horizon’s Farrell hospital. and using Department of Health records, she added Mercer County accounts for less than 1 percent of annual births in the state.
“Sharon is deeply committed to the well-being of our patients and community and plan to continue offering many specialized women’s health services including gynecology, 3D mammography and breast surgery now and in the future,’’ Penman said.