Maternity unit closure - birthing plans up in air

The closure of the maternity birthing unit means Opotiki women will have to drive about an hour to Whakatane to get help. File photo.

Mothers-to-be in Opotiki say it's unfair to close their only birthing centre at short notice.

The Bay of Plenty District Health Board has closed the Opotiki Primary Maternity Unit for four months until the end of March, saying there aren't enough midwives to keep it open.

Opotiki woman Awhina Kurei, who was expecting a fourth child in four weeks, said the arrangement has taken her by surprise.

"There was no notice at all due to them not consolidating with our people and there's no back-up plan. We were unaware this is even happening two days prior to the suspension started," says Awhina.

The closure from December 1 means women in the area will have to drive about an hour to Whakatane to get help.

Awhina says she is left with no choice but to arrange a home birth because she doesn't want to give birth outside of her hometown.

"Obviously as a hapu mama, I had to change my birthing plan. I had all my children at the maternity unit in Opotiki, so it has affected me in terms of wanting to have the next baby birthed here in my own ancestral land of Whakatohea."

Jane Curley, who has been a midwife in the area for 30 years, said there were no grounds for closing the birthing centre in the first place.

"I'm absolutely opposed to that. We have enough midwives here to cover the unit although the DHB is trying to say we don't," says Jane.

Jane says the situation is going to be especially stressful for first-time mums who often can't tell whether they're having contractions or in labour.

"If she turns up at Whakatane she's examined there. She will not be allowed to stay if she's not in labour. So you can have a situation when young mums go all the way to Whakatane only to be told they need to go home all the way back again."

Another midwife, Lisa Kelly, says there was no communication from the DHB and the future was uncertain.

"We haven't actually been given formal notification. Everything is up in the air. No one really knows what's happening," says Lisa.

MP for Waiariki, Tamati Coffey, says as a new father himself, he understands situations can change quickly when giving birth to a baby.

He says the closure will have a wider impact.

"People who live right at the tip of the cape have to take a couple of hours to get to Opotiki in itself. Now the birthing unit is closed here, they need to carry on a further 45 minutes to an hour to Whakatane to the hospital to be able to be looked after."

Mr Coffey was in Opotiki on Friday morning to accept a petition started by Awhina, which has attracted more than 5000 signatures online, in support of the birthing centre staying open.

More than 40 pregnant women have been affected by the closure, according to Lisa.

The Bay of Plenty DHB said that "the safety of women and their babies is paramount in this decision" and it has been in discussion with health providers about the future of maternity care in the town.

"The DHB has a responsibility to ensure that expectant mothers and their babies receive safe clinical care and the lack of available on-call back up is a key concern that led to the DHB making a temporary decision to suspend births at the centre for four months," the DHB's interim chief executive Simon Everitt said in a statement.

The Opotiki Independent Nursing Service also closed its night time services due to staffing problems.

Simon says that he appreciates the importance of accessible health services especially for rural communities and wants to reassure the community that the DHB is doing everything it can to look at how services can be restored.

The Bay of Plenty District Health Board has provided further information on the closure on their website.

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