Sparrow Health pulls funding for independent childbirth classes

Decision raises concerns about fewer options for expectant parents


Sparrow Health System is taking its labor and delivery classes in-house, which a local nonprofit fears will limit accessibility to affordable, independent education on childbirth.

Sparrow has announced that starting in July it will no longer fund labor and delivery classes offered by the Expectant Parent Organization, a 52-year-old Lansing nonprofit. Instead, Sparrow‘s own classes will be free or at a nominal cost to those planning births at Sparrow, spokesperson John Foren said.

McLaren Greater Lansing Hospital, which has not been funding EPO’s classes, recently launched free labor and delivery classes for expectant parents, possibly spurring Sparrow’s decision.

Foren said Sparrow will offer “more Sparrow-focused childbirth classes taught by Sparrow nurses.”

Abby Sumbler, the nonprofit’s interim executive director, said the $12,000 loss in Sparrow’s support for labor and delivery classes will mean raising prices for those classes, which she said provide a broad spectrum of information on childbirth, including natural childbirth. She said Sparrow is still expected to contribute $10,000 to EPO in support for other programs. EPO’s 2023 budget was $72,000, she said.

EPO charges $120 for either a six-hour class or two three-hour classes. It also offers a one-session “express” labor and delivery class for $90.

EPO is an independent nonprofit community organization formed in Lansing in 1972. Sumbler said 156 people took the class in 2023 and thousands more before then.

Sumbler underlined that EPO’s relationship with Sparrow has been pivotal to the organization’s services.

The EPO also provides free car seat safety checks and runs the Capital Area Baby Café, a free, drop-in weekly group where families can bring their babies, meet other families and receive in-person breastfeeding support from qualified lactation consultants.

Labor and delivery is one of four classes EPO regularly offers to expectant parents, alongside newborn care, breastfeeding and infant safety.

Thanks to Sparrow’s funding, Sumbler said, EPO has offered its class at a lower cost than private classes. By comparison, one local private Lamaze instructor charges $175. Other private childbirth preparation classes range from $150 to $425, depending on their level of comprehensiveness and personalization.

Sumbler said the change represents a “shrinking” of affordable, independent options. She said Sparrow’s EPO funding reflected that the health system valued community-based childbirth education.

According to demographic data EPO collected last month from clients, around 15% of EPO’s students reported incomes under $55,000 a year.

Kersten Kimmerly is a social worker who has been seeing the perinatal population in Lansing for almost 20 years. She has worked in private practice and as a mother-baby social worker at Sparrow.

“We have a large Medicaid population in our community,” Kimmerly said. “We need to continue to offer options for marginalized folks.”

Mitzi Montague-Bauer has assisted women in labor as a birth doula in Greater Lansing, including at Sparrow, for over 35 years. She said that Sparrow’s plan to cut EPO’s funding and take labor and delivery classes in-house “raises a red flag” for her.

Montague-Bauer said that EPO’s “independence from the hospital is important in and of itself.”

The problem, both Sumbler and Montague-Bauer say, is that the products offered by hospitals are not comparable to what EPO provides.

They point to fundamental differences between the curriculum typically offered by hospital-based childbirth classes and independent ones.

They worry that patients learn more about hospital policy from hospital classes than about the physiological processes of childbirth or the risks and benefits of procedures.

In Montague-Bauer’s experience, hospital-based classes are designed to increase “compliance.” They “teach people how to be good patients, not how to be advocates for their own birth experience.”

A “good patient,” in the eyes of a hospital, she said, is “one who follows the rules, one who comes in and doesn’t ask for anything other than just doing what they’re told.”

The EPO supports parents planning for all kinds of births. Most of their clients plan to give birth in a hospital, but about 10% are planning home births.

Kimmerly has worked inside and outside the hospital system, so she sees “both sides.”

“I see the benefit of birthing folks interacting with nurses,” she said, and “the benefit of streamlining information from the hospital to birthing folks.”

Kimmerly wrote two letters of support to Sparrow advocating for continued funding to EPO.

From years of working with the perinatal population, she said, “I know the places where people are gathering and where they feel supported.” EPO’s Baby Café is “one of those essential places.”

Above all, Kimmerly wants continued coordination between the hospital and “organizations outside the hospital” that support birthing people.

She also hopes to see a “really clear communication effort” on Sparrow’s part with patients that EPO classes are still an option.

Foren said Sparrow’s decision is consistent with those made “at other health systems.”

“Being taught directly by Sparrow nurses will be a great advantage to our patients,” said Foren.

McLaren Greater Lansing announced a similar decision to offer childbirth classes in its facility called The Birthplace last November.

Allison Claeys, an obstetrics nurse educator at McLaren, said expectant mothers will learn “directly from McLaren nurses.”

Melissa Baird, manager of patient care services at The Birthplace, said that attending their new childbirth classes “will also help ease other natural anxieties, such as the route from their home to the hospital, parking, and where to check in.”

Sumbler countered, however, that the reasons patients, particularly patients of color, may fear the hospital are more complex than “not knowing where to park.”

For many, mistrust is rooted in experience and history. “For one, there’s generational trauma from racism,” Sumbler said.  “The fear or the anxiety may start in the parking lot, but that’s not where it ends.”

Why, then, would a pregnant choose EPO classes over the free options being offered by hospitals?

“Because a birthing person may want non-hospital-biased information,” Sumbler said. “They may not want to walk into a hospital setting for their education.”



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