A town counted on a hospital’s promise

Jane Curtis

It appears that young mothers who wanted their babies to be born at Van Diest Medical Center in Webster City will have to look elsewhere.

That is, unless the VDMC board and the hospital’s management, MercyMedical Center, of Des Moines, have a sudden change of heart.

VDMC announced in the middle of last week that it will stop providing birth services in October.

The news is, of course, disturbing.

But perhaps what is more deeply disturbing is the manner in which a publicly-funded institution went about making the decision and then announcing it with a resounding thud.

Long before the decision there had existed an inclination to be less than transparent. Our sister paper, the Daily-Freeman Journal, which covers Webster City and, therefore, VDMC, has reported requesting more than once what are called packets. Those are typically supporting documents distributed to board members when they are faced with making decisions. When an institution gets taxpayer funding, it typically makes those packets available to the public — in this case the media, as well.

VDMC does get taxpayer funding, but for an undisclosed reason it has chosen not to do this.

And what’s more, it chose not to do this when it was making a decision that would hugely impact the very people charged with helping to pay its bills.

That’s wrong.

And it’s wrong in more than one way.

First, it’s wrong because people who own property in Hamilton County pay the hospital’s levy.

Second, it’s wrong because this so-called community service has chosen to function behind a wall of sorts.

And, behind that wall, it decided to do something that very seriously undercuts Webster City’s competitive edge in the drive to get young families to return to town.

The city put its energy behind igniting a new housing spurt.

And it also put its signature on a letter helping to guarantee a $1 million USDA loan to VDMC.

Then it counted on having a full-service hospital for anyone looking to locate there.

Well, that selling point just changed.

“The hospital is an anchor in the community not only for the city of Webster City, but for all of Hamilton County,” Daniel Ortiz-Hernandez, Webster City’s city manager, said last week after VDMC announced its decision. “The OB service is a significant service that families consider when considering whether or not to relocate to the community. Knowing that there is a modern local hospital capable of serving all the needs of women’s health in our community provides an important level of reassurance for couples seeking to raise a family in Hamilton County. The families who move into the new homes and apartments being constructed just to the east of the hospital and to the west in the Brewer Creek subdivision will unfortunately need to consider other options for their children’s births.

“The hospital may say they are committed to the future and health care service for generations to come,” he said, “but they have just announced the next generation of Webster City and Hamilton County residents will not be born here.”

For a long time, there has been rumbling regarding the choice a former hospital board made to basically surrender the control of the local hospital to a larger conglomerate with few ties to the community.

Some saw it as an increasingly troubling scenario.

Added to that scenario is the apparent continuing resistance to transparency.

The most recent example of this came last week when VDMC announced it would discontinue facilitating births, but also made it clear it would not field any questions.

Well, VDMC, here’s one of the questions I would have asked: What will happen if a woman in labor has an emergency that will threaten her life if she must be transported a half an hour away to the nearest birthing hospital, say UnityPoint Health — Trinity Regional Medical Center in Fort Dodge or Iowa Specialty Hospital in Clarion?

And do you care?

Jane Curtis is editor of The Messenger.