Michelle Walkey and Aaron Thornburg don’t need anything extra to worry about right now. Both are about to graduate from the Herron School of Art. Then, their baby is due on July 15. Last week, they learned they’ll need to find a new plan for having their first child.
Michelle Walkey and Aaron Thornburg aren't sure where they'll have their baby in July.
HealthNet, a local medical management company specializing in serving the uninsured and underinsured, has decided to eliminate the Tower Midwives service offered through the birthing center at Methodist Hospital. Seventy percent of Tower’s patients are covered by Medicaid. Walkey is one of about 50 women currently enjoying the specialized care offered by a three-woman, natural-delivery midwife practice. Several, like Walkey, will need to shift their care after Tower ceases operation on July 1. “I’m getting used to the midwives. They’re great people. Now, I’m two months from delivering and, all of a sudden, this,” Walkey said as she stood, along with 15 other adults and 12 children and babies, outside HealthNet’s offices in Fountain Square. The group gathered on May 6 after learning the board would decide Tower’s fate that night. Despite walking past mild-mannered protesters holding infants and hand-made signs, the board voted to move forward with plans to close Tower. Booker Thomas, CEO and president of HealthNet, said the decision was a difficult but necessary one for the board. “They didn’t want to close that service at all,” Thomas said. “It was just costing too much.” Tower, he said, is losing $70,000-$80,000 per year — a figure the other side calls “inflated.” Thomas wants Tower’s expecting mothers to understand they have natural-birth options within HealthNet’s system. The Gentle Beginnings natural-delivery birth center at Methodist will remain open, he said. The only difference is the midwives working as part of Tower will be absorbed into a larger pool of about 20 midwives. Tower’s patients will then work with the midwives in that pool. “They’ll still be able to deliver naturally,” Thomas said. “They just won’t have a particular midwife dedicated to them at the birthing center.” The natural approach to childbirth, usually led by a physician-supervised midwife, allows mothers to give birth without pain-control drugs. It also greatly reduces the rate of births by Caesarian section. Thomas said Walkey could have her baby at Gentle Beginnings in Methodist. “We’ll try to make sure the midwife she started with can be there when the baby is delivered,” Thomas said. “They’ve established a relationship. We want to try to make sure they keep that there.” But one of the Tower midwives, Ginny Maher, resigned after she found out HealthNet was closing the practice. While she feels Clarian Health, which operates Methodist Hospital, has been very supportive of midwives and natural childbirth options, she doesn’t feel HealthNet put enough into the 3-year-old Tower program.
“There’s a huge population out there who wants this type of care. But they just didn’t know we existed. We just didn’t get the support we needed to flourish. Tower could have been self-sustaining or even profitable if given the support. But how could it succeed against these odds?” —Ginny Maher, former Tower midwife
“All women deserve this kind of personalized care and this kind of continuity of care,” said Maher, a former labor and delivery nurse and a midwife for six years. “But our program was sabotaged by senior administration at HealthNet. They’ve wanted to see us gone for a while.” Maher feels HealthNet failed to promote this viable and potentially popular service to the public. It also hampered Tower’s ability to add new patients by failing to provide adequate staff and resources. “There’s a huge population out there who wants this type of care,” Maher said. “But they just didn’t know we existed. We just didn’t get the support we needed to flourish. Tower could have been self-sustaining or even profitable if given the support. But how could it succeed against these odds?” Maher fears HealthNet will continue to cut funding for the remaining natural-birth services. “It’s because of a lack of understanding, a lack of knowledge of how important this is,” she said. “I think if they understood how empowering this was for women, how much impact this can have on different generations, they’d be supportive.” Thomas said he doesn’t think HealthNet has slighted Tower or the other natural-birth services it provides. “We gave [Tower] three years. It’s a good program. But the demand for those services is not there. A lot of people just don’t want to deliver a child naturally. I suspect that’s why other birthing-center programs have had to fold also.” Last year, midwives participated in 2,200 deliveries at the Gentle Beginnings center. Of those, 146 were through the Tower practice. Maher points to those numbers as evidence of the demand for natural childbirth. In 2001, the center delivered 1,300 babies. In 2002, it was 1,600. Despite steady demand, Tower joins a long list of natural-childbirth options to close in recent years. “Three years ago, there were five options in this city: two home-birth services, our Tower practice, the birthing center on 38th Street and traditional care,” Maher said. “Now, there’s no home births, one birth center left and Tower is gone. That’s the tragedy of this.” Jennelle Richardson held her tiny daughter, Catherine, during the protest. The baby was born with a Tower midwife six weeks ago. “It’s sad for Indianapolis to lose this,” Richardson said. “The city needs to have this option for mothers.” Justyn Strother, another expecting mother and Tower patient, had her last child there two years ago. “I know two people who named their babies after their [Tower] midwives,” she said. “Women and families and babies all over the city appreciate what the midwives have done. We’re all very saddened by this loss.”