Waikato District Health Board will tomorrow decide whether to progress with a recommendation to close down its maternity units in Te Awamutu and Morrinsville.
It is a move that could potentially place mothers in labour in jeopardy if it goes ahead, with critics predicting women who live further afield from Hamilton than the two towns could face a dangerous race to get to the city before their babies arrive.
On the other hand, the health board predicts cost savings of around $1.3 million if Morrinsville's Rhoda Read maternity unit and the Matariki unit in Te Awamutu are closed down and "consolidated" to Hamilton.
While it remains to be seen whether the new post-election board will debate the recommendation or simply rubber-stamp it, it appears the report to tomorrow's meeting is being treated as a formality by health board staff.
Classified advertisements have already been placed in newspapers being published tomorrow and Thursday, advising people on the next phase in the closure process: public consultation meetings in each town.
The report on the two units, commissioned by the health board earlier this year, was originally meant to take place in the public-excluded section of tomorrow's meeting. However, it now appears the board has had a change of heart.
Penned by former midwife Chris Hendry, the report is damning of the cost of keeping the units a going concern.
The annual cost of operating both facilities is $1,281,459 ($665,802 for Rhoda Read and $615,657 for Matariki).
That is $856,468 more than the health board pays for the same number of births in Hamilton.
The report also decreed the two buildings are no longer fit for purpose, with a lack of space in the birthing rooms; problems with moving the beds in and out of the post-natal rooms; thin walls between the birthing rooms; and no ensuites - just one shared shower and toilet stall.
In his summation of the feasibility study, planning and funding general manager Brett Paradine said it would cost at least $900,000 for "minimum enhancements" to address those issues.
And even if that money was spent on them, the facilities would remain under-utilised "because population forecasting does not indicate births in either locality will increase".
"There are not enough low-risk pregnancies within the catchments of these facilities to allow a reasonable level of use for either. As it stands, most women in these communities use the Hamilton facilities already."
A litany of statistics had been produced to corroborate that view.
Of the 331 women from the Morrinsville area who gave birth in the 2012/13 year, just 58 (18 per cent) did so at Rhoda Read.
Similarly, only 52 of the 370 Te Awamutu women who had babies in the same period gave birth at Matariki.
There are two privately-run maternity centres in Hamilton - River Ridge and Waterford - as well as Waikato Hospital, which could handle the extra workload if Matariki and Rhoda Read were shut.
There is little in the report detailing how many people would be made redundant if the two centres were closed, but it states: "Redeployment throughout the sector where possible is the first option for these staff."
If the board goes with the closure plan, little time will be wasted in forging ahead with the public consultation phase. Following the two meetings on December 17, people will have until just February 3 to give their feedback.
This will be analysed by health board staff before a final report and implementation plan is drafted for the board to consider at its next meeting on February 26.
Tomorrow's health board meeting will take place at 2pm in the Hockin Building on the hospital campus.
- Waikato Times