Caitlin Jack, a registered nurse, rallies in support of keeping the obstetrics unit at Petaluma Valley Hospital open on Feb. 15, 2023. Photo by Chad Surmick, The Press Democrat

From CalMatters’ health reporter Ana B. Ibarra:

Maternity wards across the country are closing at an alarming rate, including in the Golden State. This year alone, 11 California hospitals closed or indefinitely suspended their labor and delivery departments. 

These hospitals include: El Centro Regional Medical Center in Imperial County, Doctors Hospital in Manteca in San Joaquin County and Petaluma Valley Hospital. Another hospital, Madera Community, closed down entirely at the start of the year. 

But these are only the latest in an accelerating stream of maternity ward closures. At least 46 hospitals have nixed labor and delivery services since 2012, according to a new CalMatters analysis of hospital records submitted to the state. Twenty seven of those closures have taken place in just the last three years

The impact: The closures are disproportionately affecting low-income and Latino communities, according to an analysis of census records. Some pregnant women now must travel farther to deliver their babies, and some of the maternity wards that are still open are being strained by the influx of new patients. In Imperial County, for example, only one hospital is left to deliver about 2,500 babies born a year. Otherwise, pregnant women must travel to San Diego or Riverside counties, almost two hours away.

  • Adriana Ramirez, manager of maternal health programs for Imperial County’s Public Health Department: “The choices are limited, and so sometimes women have reported that there’s a delay in being able to get into the maternity ward.”  

This is all happening as the state and country also try to address a maternal health crisis. Pregnancy-related deaths reached a 10-year high in 2020, according to state data. 

  • Assemblymember Akilah Weber, an obstetrician and Democrat from La Mesa: “At a time where we are finally recognizing that there are disparities within our healthcare system, when we are recognizing that there are disparities in the outcomes of our pregnant patients and their infants…we’re also at the same time increasing those disparities with these maternity ward closures.”

What’s behind the closures: Hospital administrators and experts cited multiple factors that are contributing to these closures, including: high costs, periods of financial stress for hospitals, labor shortages, consolidations and the state’s declining number of births. In the past 30 years, the state’s birth rate has dropped by almost half.

  • Carmela Coyle, president of the California Hospital Association: “I think there are multiple whys: In some of these rural communities, they’ve lost a key member of that team and they just can’t get them back. In other places, they simply don’t have enough births to make this safe. And in other places, it could be the finances where they simply can’t afford to support the entire team 24/7.”

For more on the maternal care crisis, read the story from me, working with CalMatters’ health reporter Kristen Hwang and data reporter Erica Yee.

CalMatters events: The next event is noon to 1 p.m. today about California’s toxic waste problem and how to fix it. Register here.

More kudos for CalMatters: The Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter, on Tuesday announced the latest award for a groundbreaking wage theft series by CalMatters’ California Divide team. It won for investigative reporting in the print/online category for large news organizations. 

Conservatives strike back in CA

Gracey Van Der Mark, Mayor Pro Tem, with books she believes should be banned from children’s sections of the library in Huntington Beach Nov. 11, 2023. Photo by Lauren Justice for Cal Matters
Gracey Van Der Mark, one of the conservative majority on the Huntington Beach City Council, in her City Hall office on Nov. 11, 2023. Photo by Lauren Justice for Cal Matters

With the Republican Party struggling to make inroads statewide, California conservatives are focusing on local politics. A scattering of school boards, for instance, have enacted policies to require school staff to out transgender or gender-nonconforming students to parents, despite opposition from the state Department of Justice.

City councils have also become another place where “backlash politics” over liberal governance play out, writes CalMatters’ Capitol reporter Alexei Koseff. He focuses on Huntington Beach, which historically has walked a tightrope of sorts. Though it’s long been a conservative Orange County suburb, it was rarely perceived as overly partisan, exuding relaxed, beach town vibes instead.

But in recent years, Huntington Beach has become the site of regular protests for conservative causes, such as opposing pandemic restrictions and supporting Donald Trump. And after winning last November’s election, the new conservative majority on its city council has approved sweeping changes that thrust the city deep into the country’s most contentious cultural battles.

The council has banned City Hall from flying the rainbow LGBTQ+ flag during Pride Month, dissolved a human relations committee, rewrote a declaration on human dignity to recognize “the genetic differences between male and female,” passed a ban on mask and vaccine mandates and is creating a review panel to monitor library books.

While this wave against what conservatives call “wokeism” has emboldened its activists, some locals fear that rather than addressing issues such as housing and homelessness, the city council is instead pulling the community to political extremes.

  • Carol Daus, a library volunteer and Huntington Beach resident: “They have just come in and taken a wrecking ball to the city with all of these things they have passed. Now the community is divided. There is no place for the middle.”

Read more about the fight in Huntington Beach in Alexei’s story.

Electric bills going up and up

Angelica Vásquez outside her home in San Leandro on Nov. 10, 2023. Photo by Manuel Orbegozo for CalMatters

In addition to grocery bills and gas prices, electric bills are another expense that continue to spiral upwards — and they may rise by double-digit percentages for PG&E customers. As Justo Robles from CalMatters’ California Divide team writes, the Oakland-based utility is asking the state Public Utilities Commission on Thursday for a 26% rate hike to go in effect by Jan. 1.

If that makes your eyebrows rise, you wouldn’t be alone. The latest electric rate report by the commission’s Public Advocates Office found that the average monthly bill for PG&E customers increased by $52 from January 2021 to September. (And from January 2014 to September, PG&E rates jumped by 92%.) According to the office, Californians already pay twice the national average for residential electricity.

In response, state regulators proposed to significantly cut PG&E’s rate request, suggesting 9% or 13% increases from 2022 instead. But the company says it has good reasons to hike prices. It argues the money will go towards ensuring “the safety and reliability of its energy service,” including investments in underground electric lines, which help to reduce the chances of electrical-triggered wildfires — a climate change reality that the company must contend with. 

Read more about the impact on struggling families, including Angelica Vásquez’s, in Justo’s story.

Speaking of climate change: A new national assessment out Tuesday ranks California among the top five states suffering the most economic effects from climate-related natural disasters.

A chapter focusing on California and other Southwest states includes a long and alarming list, especially the effects of drought on water supplies, agriculture, diseases and ecosystems, explains CalMatters’ climate reporter Alejandro Lazo.

  • UCLA climate scientist Aradhna Tripati, one of the authors: “We’re actively experiencing severe climate change impacts. It’s no longer theoretical or a distant threat, an abstract one. It is not something that happens in the future here. It is not something only happening in places far away from where we live.”

Read more about this new study in Alejandro’s story.

CHP gets paid, scientists strike

California Highway Patrol officers stand in formation during the 2023 San Joaquin County Peace Officer Memorial at the Stockton Police Department on May 10, 2023. Photo by Sara Nevis, The Stockton Record via Reuters
California Highway Patrol officers stand in formation at the Stockton Police Department on May 10, 2023. Photo by Sara Nevis, The Stockton Record via Reuters

As the only state worker union that doesn’t need to negotiate wage increases because of a special law, the California Association of Highway Patrolmen are expected to receive their biggest raise in 20 years, writes CalMatters’ criminal justice reporter Nigel Duara.

CHP officers will get a 7.9% wage increase, on top of a 6.2% raise last year. Their pay is based on the average compensation of five other law enforcement agencies, including the Los Angeles and San Francisco police departments. 

That law makes them among the highest paid officers in the state — a survey by the state department of Human Resources released Monday reported that the average net pay for CHP officers is $109,476.

The bump is higher than the biggest general salary increase of 4% that the Newsom administration has extended to other state unions, though it has also offered a mix of bonuses and special pay raises for positions that are more difficult to fill.

But as one state union gets their raises, another is still left waiting.

The California Association of Professional Scientists has been negotiating for more than three years, and begins its three-day walkout today — the first strike by state civil servants, according to The Sacramento Bee. The “Defiance for Science” will entail picketing at specific worksites, starting at the state’s Environmental Protection Agency building in Sacramento.

The California Labor Federation has requested its members to not cross picket lines in a show of solidarity, and the office of Assemblymember Tina McKinnor, who in August penned a letter to the governor urging his administration to reach a deal with the union, said the Inglewood Democrat plans to join them on the picket line “later this week.”

A major gripe the union has is the wide pay discrepancy between the 5,600 scientists it represents, about half of them women, and state engineers, mostly men, who at times do similar work. A state assessment published last year found that full-time rank-and-file state scientists earned about 27% less than state engineers in 2020 — averaging about $83,586 compared to $114,012. The union says members last received a pay raise in July 2021.

CalMatters Commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: Proposals abound to add topics to California public school curricula, but the focus should be on basic academic skills.

As California hospitals close maternity wards, here’s one way for women to prevent stillbirths, writes Allie Felker, director of policy for PUSH for Empowered Pregnancy.

Other things worth your time:

Some stories may require a subscription to read.

Kevin McCarthy reportedly shoves GOP Rep. Tim Burchett // Daily Beast 

David DePape testifies on ‘grand plan’ to violently interrogate Nancy Pelosi // KQED

Timeline to reopen 10 Freeway is 3 to 5 weeks // LAist

Express toll lanes planned for I-80, Hwy 50 near Sacramento // The Sacramento Bee

Here’s how MultiOn AI assistant passed CA written driver test // The San Francisco Standard

Bay Area Palestinians sue Biden over Gaza ‘genocide’ // San Francisco Chronicle

Daughter of farmworkers confirmed as 9th Circuit judge // San Francisco Chronicle

Jury orders Amazon to pay former worker $1.2M over bullying // Los Angeles Times

Despite violations, residential hotels nab contracts under LA’s homelessness program // ProPublica

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact CalMatters with any commentary questions:

Lynn La is the WhatMatters newsletter writer. Prior to joining CalMatters, she developed thought leadership at an edtech company and was a senior editor at CNET. She also covered public health at The Sacramento...