As a birth advocate, supporting the rights of women who plan a vaginal birth after cesarean (VBAC) will likely keep me busy for the duration of my career.  My heart goes out to women who have to navigate their healthcare options for childbirth after a cesarean one facility, practice and provider at a time. At the end of their inquiries, many find that their options are limited by their individual histories, provider decisions, hospital policies, insurance reimbursement and even politics.

Since October, I’ve been working through the West Michigan Better Birth Network, the local chapter of the non-profit, Birth Network National, to address the official VBAC ban at Spectrum Health Gerber Memorial. We have collected stories of women who have had VBACs there in order to stress to administrators that, despite being counseled that the main hospital campus, Spectrum Health Butterworth in Grand Rapids, is the safest place to labor and deliver, they have legitimate reasons for choosing a community hospital setting. [Link to a sample letter from Rebekah Thompson of New Life Doula Services. Link to my own letter from the perspective of a Substance Abuse Prevention Specialist.]

I was recently attending an event at Amanda Holbert’s yoga studio, Renew Mama. While discussing the work of the WMBBN, Amanda brought up the “ban” on CNMs attending VBACs in West Michigan hospitals. Amanda inspired me to look into this restriction further. Why could CNMs attend VBACs in some hospitals, like Borgess in Kalamazoo, but not at Spectrum Health Butterworth (the only hospital in West Michigan that both allows VBACs and has CNMs who deliver there)?

I called Spectrum Health to ask about their policy on CNMs attending VBAC deliveries and was referred to Charmaine Kyle, Clinical Nurse Specialist in Women and Infant Services. Right away, she informed me that the hospital does not have an explicit policy banning CNMs from attending VBAC deliveries. I checked in with Jen Kamel of VBACfacts, an advocate for greater access to VBACs nationwide, who suspected internal politics to be the culprit.

Before hearing back from Charmaine with a definitive answer, I attended the American College of Nurse Midwives (ACNM) Michigan Affiliate conference in Kalamazoo.  There, I met midwives from across the state, most of whom are supported in attending VBACs at the hospitals where they work. Meeting these midwives made me even more determined to find out what is causing the restriction and advocate for overcoming it – West Michigan women deserve all possible options!

This past Wednesday, I received a reply: “a midwife is available through the residency clinic and would be able to establish care with a patient antepartum.  When it comes time for delivery the midwife would partner with an obstetrician and co-manage the care during labor.  The only problem right now is we don’t have enough midwives to provide 24/7 coverage.  Our hospitalist (core faculty) obstetricians would manage the care during the night and on weekends.” In other words, a woman could see a midwife for prenatal care, but could only have one in attendance at her birth if she happens to deliver during normal business hours.

After speaking with a CNM in private practice who delivers at Spectrum Health Butterworth, I learned they are in a similar situation. The hospital’s laborist (salaried staff Ob/Gyn) will not cover them in the event a cesarean becomes necessary, so an obstetrician from their practice has to both be available and willing to stay at the hospital until the mom delivers without being paid to do so. Since they cannot guarantee that this requirement will be met, the midwives who practice at the hospital cannot advertise their ability to take on pregnant women planning VBACs.

Several changes could move West Michigan toward increased access to CNM-attended VBAC births in hospitals. First, Spectrum Health Butterworth could hire more midwives so that those working in their residency clinic could be paid to cover births occurring 24-hours a day. Secondly, the hospital could further find creative solutions to overcome the liability fears of the laborist which lead to the unwillingness to cover the midwives working in private practice. Thirdly, other hospitals that allow VBACs could hire midwives.  Finally, smaller community hospitals who already have midwives delivering there could remove their VBAC bans.

Are CNMs able to attend VBACs in hospitals in your area? What worked to increase access in your community? Do you wish you had this option?  I want to hear from you!