Waikato rural mothers face the risk that their babies will be “born on the side of the road” after the planned closure of two birthing centres serving large areas.
Late last month staff and mothers-to-be at Birthcare Huntly in north Waikato and at Waihi Lifecare birthing unit in eastern Waikato learnt the centres will be shut before year’s end.
This leaves some women who are due to give birth facing at least a two-hour trip to the next nearest centre, Waikato Hospital in Hamilton.
Bernie Miers, lead maternity carer at Birthcare Huntly, has hit back at claims made by owner Evolution Healthcare that the closure is due to staffing shortages and a declining number of parents and whānau accessing the services.
The operators claimed that the unit had seen only 40 parents use the facility so far this year – and that only six women went into labour.
“We have pulled 12 months of numbers and they do not match up with that,” Miers said.
“They said only six went into labour and 40 used the facility. I have 40 births recorded here and another 20 transferred from here to Waikato Hospital, and 180 parent days spent here from October 1 last year to now,” she said.
She acknowledged that a shortage of midwives is a national issue but said it is not one that applies to Huntly.
“We are fully catering for over 90% of the women needing a midwife here with our team of five. And the staff here at the unit cover 24-hour care for postnatal mums and they are fully staffed also.”
She maintains the real reason for the closure is lack of financing from Te Whatu Ora Health NZ to Evolution.
“Basically, the funding has not increased to meet inflation costs.”
The Waikato region recorded a birth rate of 67.4 births per 1000 women in 2017, the latest dataset available. That was 10% above the national average, and Miers said there is no shortage of births.
“Birthcare has been having to cover the costs from their own funds, they are just not being paid enough to maintain it.”
She said there are numerous rural communities throughout north Waikato as far as Pukekohe affected by the decision – stretching across to the west coast, and into eastern Waikato in districts experiencing significant population growth.
Communities such as Ohinewai, Te Kauwhata and Huntly are all expanding, with subdivisions drawing in younger families thanks to cheaper housing opportunities.
“I believe we will be seeing babies being born on the side of the road. It is also highly unlikely we will see resources expanded in Hamilton to meet the demand that will come from closing Huntly,” she said.
Across the region in Waihi, Waihi Lifecare maternity team leader Ashley McKay said the Waihi unit has struggled to gain funding for five new midwives since it lost them from its team of eight over covid-19.
“We do not employ midwives, but the unit is used by them. A year ago, we reached out to Te Whatu Ora for funding. That request was simply ignored, and they have still not responded, other than to accept the fact we are going to have to cease operations.”
The impact upon local mothers-to-be will be significant, given the centre’s catchment, which extends northwards along the east coast of Coromandel.
The centre has become even more vital for those communities with the closure of the Kopu-Hikuai highway, effectively isolating them from Thames Hospital.
McKay said the issue is also complicated by Waihi being in the old Waikato District Health Board catchment, and Tauranga Hospital is not prepared to accept women from outside its old region.
“We are supposed to be all one now, but that’s not the case.”
Both women said there is strong interest in their communities in keeping the centres open, with active campaigns and behind-the-scenes discussions taking place.