BIRTHING services have been suspended at Portland's only hospital, leaving expecting mothers with no choice but to travel over an hour to give birth.
Portland District Health announced it had "temporarily" paused its birthing services for up to three months due to a shortage of midwives.
It's the latest in a string of issues plaguing the hospital.
A Portland woman said her daughter had to give birth in Warrnambool earlier this month because the hospital didn't have a surgeon that could give an epidural.
"She didn't want to go to Warrnambool," she said.
"There was nothing wrong with the baby, nothing that Portland couldn't have done. Her first baby was in Portland and they handled it just fine.
"We were so worried she would give birth on the side of the road."
She said travelling over an hour to Warrnambool meant incurring extra costs as well as stress for families.
"At Portland partners can stay over, whereas Warrnambool doesn't have a ward for that, so my daughter's partner had to travel and come back to pick up my grandson."
The hospital provides low-risk birthing services across two birthing suites for women with full-term pregnancies.
Women who develop complications or go into labour less than 37 completed pregnancy weeks are referred to larger hospitals.
A PDH spokesman said antenatal clinics, birthing classes and domiciliary care would still be provided.
"This important decision will provide certainty and the safest and best possible care, in partnership with neighbouring health services," the spokesman said.
An average of 76 babies have been born at PDH each year for the past three years.
The change will affect 30 women due to give birth in the next three months - 10 in the next two weeks.
Of the 30 women, 21 were booked at PDH, seven at South West Healthcare and two at Western District Health Service.
The hospital will review the arrangement every six weeks while it scrambles to hire more midwives.
"PDH's number one priority is always the health and safety of our community and staff. We will continue to provide high quality care for our community," the spokesman said.
The Warrnambool Base Hospital is expected to take the majority of births from Portland.
South West Healthcare chief executive Craig Fraser said the hospital had not begun bookings.
"Over a three month period we may see 15 to 20 additional deliveries through SWH while PDH suspend services," Mr Fraser said.
"However, parents affected by this shutdown could choose to deliver elsewhere, or based on medical advice, be transferred outside of the region.
"It is worth noting that SWH delivered 56 babies last month alone, so to put things into perspective we do not feel this additional load will put too much of an extra strain on our services and we are happy to help.
"We will be working with the Portland team to ensure we plan for people who will be choosing to deliver in Warrnambool in combination with ensuring we have additional staff where needed."
He said there had been no formal request from PDH to share staff.
"But we will support them in any way we can," Mr Fraser said.
Last year 57 babies were born in Warrnambool from the Portland district and eight babies transferred from PDH to SWH.
Meanwhile, an average of five mothers have given birth in Hamilton each year for the past three years from Portland.
Western District Health Service chief executive Rohan Fitzgerald said it would be too difficult to share staff without compromising maternity services in Hamilton.
"It is difficult to know how many women will come to WDHS to give birth from Portland," Mr Fitzgerald said.
"There are a range of factors they will consider when making a decision, this includes the ability to have their partner stay overnight with them, the rapport they develop with the midwifery team and any complicating factors that need to be addressed."
Former board member Mike Noske said babies should be born in Portland, not driven down the highway to Warrnambool, Mount Gambier or Hamilton.
"It's ridiculous that 150 women have babies outside of Portland, in this day and age when this city has got about 15,000 people living in its environment," he said during a protest outside the hospital earlier this month.
"I was amused about two months into the pandemic when there was an uproar because somebody from Goulburn had to be driven to Canberra to have their baby - one person and it was this horrific thing. It happens 150 times a year in Portland."
The move has been slammed by Member for South West Coast Roma Britnell and opposition health spokeswoman Georgie Crozier as a failure by government.
Ms Britnell said pregnant women and families in Portland had been left in limbo.
She said it leftmothers in a "perilous position" if they experienced complications.
"The suspension of the maternity services at Portland hospital is extremely concerning, coming on the back of ophthalmologist Robert Harvey's resignation which will impact many patients requiring ongoing eye care," Mr Britnell said.
"Portland mothers and families should be able to access fundamental healthcare services to allow them to have their baby in Portland.
"I sat on the Inquiry into Perinatal Services which was tabled in 2018 and among its many recommendations was better workforce planning. If the government took note of those recommendations, we might not have the situation Portland mothers are facing."
Ms Crozier said a lack of workforce planning by the state government was to blame for both the situation at PDH and the ambulance system.
"The Andrews Labor Government needs to be clear about its intentions to amalgamate PDH," Ms Crozier said.
"The Minister for Health can't continue to blame the pandemic for the government's systemic failures in the public health system.
"As Victoria looks to recover and rebuild, people need to know they will have access to healthcare services they need, particularly in regional areas like Portland."
She said the government continued to ignore recommendations of several reviews into future service delivery at PDH, including its refusal to publicly release the Hillis report which outlined a new, more sustainable model for the hospital.
The DHHS declined The Standard's request for comment.
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