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Hit the highway baby, Livingston County will not have a birthing center

On March 25, a baby was born in the Costco parking lot in Green Oak Township.

Which means that Costco has been the site of more births than Livingston County’s lone hospital for the last decade or so. It now seems that record will hold for many years into the foreseeable future.

Thursday on the “Mike and Jon Got it Going On” podcast, Trinity Health Livingston President John O’Malley made it official. There will be no birthing center at the impressive new hospital being built near Brighton in Genoa Township.

The numbers just don’t justify it.

That’s a tough admission for O’Malley who has hoped to restore the birthing center probably since he first arrived seven years ago to run Livingston County’s oldest health care operation. But as someone with firsthand experience, I can say that the effort to birth babies in the county has never delivered.

I sat on the hospital board back when it was McPherson Hospital – that’s pronounced Mc-FUR-son because, as the eponymous family liked to say, “There is no fear in McPherson.” This was shortly after the formerly independent hospital had been purchased by the Ann Arbor-centered Saint Joseph health system.

For several years we were presented a budget that relied heavily on what turned out to be unrealistic growth projections for the birthing center. The births never materialized, despite the presence of a highly-regarded team of OB-GYNs and the infusion of significant capital into the physical plant. For a variety of reasons, families chose hospitals in Ann Arbor, Novi, Southfield, and even Milford for births.

Facing harsh realities, the hospital closed its birthing center, a move that many didn’t notice but that irked those who did. One leading Democrat compared the county to a Third World nation because of the lack of a birthing center, somehow blaming local Republicans in general and the county board of commissioners in particular.

The main hospital still sits in Howell and, since opening in 1986, the Brighton facility has flourished on the site of a former golf course. Originally called the Woodland Medical Center, it’s now the Trinity Health Medical Center-Brighton and provides emergency care, primary and specialty physician offices, outpatient surgery, and a cancer center which – one of its earliest proponents claimed – offers services as good as you can find anywhere between New York City and the Mayo Clinic.

The new hospital, long talked about but finally approved in December by Trinity’s national board, will be built behind the Brighton facility. It will be four stories, contain at least 56 beds and, according to O’Malley, continue to provide an expanding array of services short of open-heart surgery.

When he arrived in Livingston County in 2016, O’Malley found a St. Joseph system that wasn’t at all clear of its mission in the county. Its two major campuses in Brighton and Howell reported to different managers, and it was difficult to shake the feeling that the local hospital was somewhat of an afterthought for a system that, understandably, revolved around the flagship hospital in Ann Arbor.

O’Malley became a hard-charging advocate for county health services. Perhaps the powers in charge were motivated by aggressive competition from the University of Michigan which built a massive health care center on Challis Road in Brighton and Providence Hospital which established a presence on Latson Road midway between Howell and Brighton.

Shortly after arriving, O’Malley oversaw a $90 million investment in system facilities across the county. Now he’s set to orchestrate the construction of a $238 million new hospital which, optimistically, will open by the end of 2025. A 2026 date may be more realistic. These things take time.

There are unanswered questions, particularly what will happen to the existing Howell hospital. O’Malley is candid: they don’t know. It could be repurposed for specialty medical services, or it could be razed and sold to a developer, something that would tug at the heartstrings of old-timers but probably wouldn’t be much noticed by most.

At any rate, the county – once almost bereft of medical services outside of Howell – now has a plethora of options.

You just can’t have a baby here. Of course, Costco still has a functioning parking lot.

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