'Unsustainable' Lower Hutt midwife service closes doors

Imogen Wells
Source: 1News

A midwifery organisation in Wellington’s Lower Hutt is closing its doors for good at the end of this year.

In 2020, the team at Birthworks was five-women strong, but just two midwives work there now and the pair say they can no longer cope.

Jessica Evans and Kelly Jackson-Sagmyr spoke exclusively to 1 NEWS about the issues they’ve been facing over their multi-year careers.

“I’m earning less money as a registered midwife than I did as a 22-year-old single working mum,” Evans said.

She chose midwifery as a career after her own experience with a Birthworks midwife.

Fifteen years on, she’s leaving the industry.

“It was a huge decision for me. I took a chance, as a young single mum with a good job, to leave and do midwifery. I did it to better myself and my son’s life, and I wanted a career; a lifelong career."

I feel incredibly sad, 15 years later, that this is the end of my career.”

Both women say the decision to close Birthworks down and stop taking on new clients from the end of this year was extremely difficult.

“We feel like we’re letting the profession down. It’s hard not to blame yourself,” Evans said.

“We’ve been losing midwives for years and years, that’s been really well publicised and documented. We’ve been losing them because it’s unsustainable, with the lack of funding and lack of midwives to provide the service.”

Health Minister Andrew Little today acknowledged the shortage of community midwives, calling midwives the “backbone of our health system”.

He said more needs to be done to make the job more attractive.

Lead Maternity Care midwives, or community midwives, are paid in stages throughout a pregnancy, with the first payment coming through only after their client hits 28 weeks.

As contractors with to the Ministry of Health, they don’t get to decide their pay rate – it’s dictated by the Government body.

LMC Midwives don’t get paid sick leave, or holiday pay, and are expected to be on all year, 24/7.

Jackson-Sagmyr said repeatedly failed payment negotiations and sky-rocketing client inquiries have been too much to handle.

“It feels like we’re being thrown breadcrumbs and expected to keep going. Midwives have been screaming, and screaming, for help for so long that they’re becoming hoarse. And the Government doesn’t seem to hear or understand what it’s like at the coalface and what we’re trying to do with a severely under-resourced system,” she said.

It will see midwives who care for women with complex needs or live rurally receive more pay.

Birthworks has been operating since the 90s, so its closure later this year will be a blow to the Lower Hutt community.

Kristal Sargent, new mum and a client of Evans’, worries about who she’ll use as a midwife if she has another baby.

“There’s going to be a lot of people like myself who genuinely don’t know what to do. It’s going to leave us in a position where we’re forced to do something we don’t want to,” she told 1 NEWS.

She said having Evans as her midwife made her pregnancy much easier than she’d imagined.

“I’d see Jess for sometimes nearly two hours because she gave me the time. Sometimes she’d been awake for two nights in a row, but then she’s there for me 100 per cent, then she’s there for the next person.

“Why on earth aren’t these amazing people, who are giving their heart and souls, paid what they’re worth? Why is it like that? It’s terrible. It’s horrible.”

Evans said that by the end of this year there will only be 14 registered midwives working in the Hutt Valley.

“If they take an average of 40 women per year, it doesn’t add up to much when the birthing population of the Hutt Valley is anywhere between 2000-2500 a year.”

She worries without choice, women will be forced to use a maternity care provider they don’t want to.

“Some will have to go into the fragmented hospital system.”

The two midwives said a significant part of their daily workload was simply contacting women who’d messaged asking for their service.

“Some of them are angry; they’d called 12 others and were getting no. It was weighing a lot on us and it was emotionally distressing. The women will beg, and cry, on the phone. We want to provide for them, but we can’t.”

Jackson-Sagmyr said every woman they turn down is another woman potentially putting pressure on hospital midwives.

“They’re working so hard, and we know this is only going to but more pressure on them, and also on the community. But it’s just too hard.”

New Zealand College of Midwives chief executive Alison Eddy said Wellington, Auckland, and Dunedin are parts of the country facing significant midwife shortages due to high numbers leaving the profession.

“There is a relatively widespread concern and dissatisfaction with the funding model for community midwives. It doesn’t bode well for retention of our workforce,” she said.

In Budget 2020, $85 million was promised to the industry to improve the pay for midwives working rurally or dealing with complex pregnancies.

The money is to be spread over four years with the first round of increased payments going out in November this year.

Neither Evans nor Jackson-Sagmyr have plans for what they’ll do next; they’re too busy with their current workloads to even consider it.

“We’re both still busy and the job is so demanding, rewarding but demanding, we haven’t had time to think that far ahead,” said Jackson-Sagmyr.

While any further funding increases are too little too late for the pair, they do have hopes for the industry’s future.

“A lot of people say that throwing money at a problem won’t fix it, but it will. It will keep midwives in the profession,” Evans said.

“Fix the funding model.”