Women continue to give birth at United Medical Center, the city's troubled public hospital, even after regulators shut down the labor and delivery unit on Aug. 9 citing concerns about patient safety, an attorney representing nurses told the D.C. Council on Tuesday.
Births are taking place in the emergency room, said Wala Blegay, a staff attorney at the D.C. Nurses Association, during a public roundtable Tuesday. Obstetrics nurses are no longer working at UMC, and that increases the risks for mothers and their babies, she said.
"There is a concern that at one point there is going to be a situation that comes in that they simply can't handle," Blegay said.
"I have heard from multiple nurses that there was more than one birth [since Aug. 9]," Blegay later told The Washington Post, adding that she did not know the total and did not have access to birth records. "Nurses are saying the babies are being delivered in the hospital and then transported out."
But Jennifer Devlin, a spokeswoman for United Medical Center, said just one birth has occurred at UMC since the labor and delivery unit was closed.
Devlin said the hospital is in "full compliance" with a federal law requiring anyone who comes to an emergency department to be stabilized and treated, including women in labor.
In a statement, Devlin said that if a patient arrives "at the ER and is in the process of delivering, we provide the needed medical assessment and treatment and where possible, transportation to a regional OB unit."
The city's Department of Health, which regulates hospitals and maintains records of births in the District, said it could not provide the number of births that have been recorded at UMC since Aug. 9, referring questions to the hospital.
The department made an unannounced inspection Tuesday of UMC's training in emergency obstetrics and found the hospital in "full compliance" with regulations, Devlin said.
But Jane Link, a registered nurse who has worked at UMC for 29 years and delivered her own children there, said that ER nurses were given no additional training after the obstetrics unit closed and that they are ill-prepared to deal with the type of high-risk births that may occur in emergency rooms.
"Often, someone that comes to an emergency room in the process of delivering a baby has some other medical problems, and the baby is going to be compromised," said Link, who is the secretary of the nurse's union. " This is a very unhealthy situation for both mother and baby."
A morbidly obese woman and her baby died in June 2017 after the woman, who was 35 weeks pregnant, spent six hours languishing in United Medical Center's emergency room, The Post previously reported. District regulators cited that death and other issues for closing the labor and delivery unit.
Blegay said the obstetrics unit should be reopened so that mothers east of the Anacostia River, where infant-mortality rates are the city's highest, have a dedicated place to deliver babies and receive prenatal care.
D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), who chaired Tuesday's roundtable, was visibly angry that LaRuby May, a former D.C. Council member who chairs the UMC board of directors, refused his request that she appear at the roundtable to testify.
The Post reported last week that May, who was appointed by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), received an email from consultants running the hospital about plans to shut down the obstetrics ward before regulators closed it. The documents obtained by The Post show that consultants cited the ward's drain on hospital finances and concerns about the quality of care for patients.
Gray said May's lack of cooperation with the D.C. Council is "completely unprecedented." May did not respond to requests for comment.
"If LaRuby May is unable to fulfill her duties as board chair, then I think she should step down," said Gray, who chairs the D.C. Council's Health Committee.
Gray said he will request subpoena power during a Health Committee vote Friday, a move that would allow the committee to compel May and other witnesses to testify and to produce relevant documents.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said that requesting subpoena power is rare and shows the committee's frustration with the scant information it has received about UMC.
"There's no question this move could help fix that," Mendelson said. "It also makes clear that the hospital — and transparency about the hospital's decision-making — is important."
Two members of the Health Committee — Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and David Grosso (I-At Large) — said they have not decided whether they will vote for subpoena power. Member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) said she supports subpoenas. Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4) did not respond to a request for comment.
"I'm weighing it," Cheh said. "I'm very committed to the council as an institution. If we're going to properly play our oversight role, then we need cooperation from the executive branch. I'm disappointed that we haven't been able to get that cooperation on this issue."