For pregnant women in Philadelphia, especially in the Northeast, finding a hospital with available delivery beds may be more laborious than contractions.

The situation has resulted from shortages of maternity wards and resources in the city, according to JoAnne Fischer, executive director of Maternity Care Coalition.

Yesterday, representatives from local healthcare groups convened to discuss forming a task force to tackle the alarming trend of shrinking healthcare options for pregnant women.

"Patients are concerned," said acting health commissioner Carmen Paris, after a news conference at the Peco Energy building yesterday morning. "They're afraid of not reaching a bed."

Members of the task force - made up of the Maternity Care Coalition, the Delaware Valley Healthcare Council, the Midwifery Association and various insurance companies - led their own individual battles to combat the dilemma until Paris decided to unite their efforts.

The group wants to go to Harrisburg to draft a blueprint for short and long-term solutions, Paris said. The group is in the preliminary planning stages.

"We want something to happen by fall," Paris said. "We're doing a cross-check of what needs to be addressed."

Over the span of a decade, 12 obstetrics units have closed in the city, including Northeast facilities - Frankford Hospital and Jeanes Hospital, which closed last month.

With no natal care hospitals remaining in that area, patients are forced to travel to not-so-nearby centers such as, Albert Einstein Medical Center, Abington Memorial Hospital and Holy Redeemer Health System in Meadowbrook.

"People have made phone calls panicking about changing their physicians and mid-wives," said JoAnne Fischer, executive director of Maternity Care Coalition.

With only eight remaining maternity wards in the city, the strain is being felt.

Women in some hospitals were forced to cut their hospital stay short, after giving birth, to free up space for other patients. Others have tried to find alternate practices, but often were turned away.

Arnold Cohen, chairman of the OBGYN unit at Einstein, said the hospital sees a crisis every day. By next year, he said he expects 3,300 deliveries, an over 55 percent increase from the previously recorded number of 2,000 deliveries in 2000.

All this, he said, "with the same number of delivery beds, postpartum beds and newborn beds."

The ideal number of beds needed in the city to combat the drop is 317, said Paris. There are 302 beds now, which is a stark decline from the 342 beds in 2004.

Paris said it's too early to know how much an undertaking like this would cost.

Her concern, she said, and that of members of the task force is to meet the needs of the community.

"When the child decides to come, the child decides to come not when a bed is waiting for them," she said. *