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Idaho hospital closes its maternity ward, citing the state’s ‘political climate’

Former patients of Bonner General Health will now have to drive at least 46 miles to find the nearest hospital providing prenatal, birth and postpartum care.

A hospital in northern Idaho is ending labor and delivery services, citing staffing issues and the state’s “legal and political climate.”

Jen Jackson Quintano, 43, had planned to give birth at her home in Sandpoint, Idaho, a northern town with a population of just over 9,000 people, a few years ago.

When she started to experience complications, she was rushed to Bonner General Health, the only hospital in the area with labor and delivery services. After an emergency c-section, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl.

“I can’t imagine how the circumstances might have been different if I had to travel all the way to Coeur d’Alene or if I had to go into the emergency room,” Jackson Quintano told TODAY.com.

Now, that’s a new reality for the pregnant people in her community.

“People in this town are feeling this sadness, this shock and this sense of outrage,” Jackson Quintano said. “Who is going to be serving mothers and their children and what are we going to see in the way of maternal mortality?”

Bonner General Health in Sandpoint, Ind.
Bonner General Health in Sandpoint, Ind.Google

In a news release, the hospital’s board of directors and senior leadership team said they “made every effort to avoid eliminating” labor and delivery services.

“We hoped to be the exception, but our challenges are impossible to overcome now,” Ford Elsaesser, Bonner General Health’s board president, said in the written statement.

As a result, Sandpoint residents will have to drive at least 46 miles to find the nearest hospital providing prenatal, birth and postpartum care.

'Legal and political climate' caused closure

According to the news release, the “emotional and difficult decision” was made due to the loss of pediatric coverage “to manage neonatal resuscitations and perinatal care,” a decrease in the number of babies born at the hospital and “Idaho’s legal and political climate.”

Currently, Idaho has three separate near-total abortion bans: One that prohibits abortion after 6 weeks of pregnancyone that bans all abortions with exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the pregnant person and one that allows family members to sue doctors who they believe provided abortion care.

“Highly respected, talented physicians are leaving,” the news release said. “Recruiting replacements will be extraordinarily difficult. In addition, the Idaho Legislature continues to introduce and pass bills that criminalize physicians for medical care nationally recognized as the standard of care. Consequences for Idaho Physicians providing the standard of care may include civil litigation and criminal prosecution, leading to jail time or fines.”

In a written statement to TODAY.com, a representative for Bonner General Health said “patient safety is our top priority,” adding that losing pediatric coverage was “the final barrier that drove the decision to close Labor and Delivery services.”

“Bonner General Health’s leadership has reached out to other active and retired providers in the community requesting assistance with pediatric call coverage with no long-term sustainable solutions,” the representative said. “There is a hope that there will be Labor and Delivery services for our community in the future.”

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), less than half of all rural women live within a 30-minute drive to the nearest hospital offering perinatal care. One 2011 study found that when pregnant people have to travel farther for maternity services, their health suffered.

Jackson Quintano, who has lived in Sandpoint for 11 years, said that the OBGYN who delivered her daughter, Dr. Amelia Huntsberger, is now leaving the state, which Huntsberger also confirmed in an email to the Idaho Capital Sun newspaper.

Aspiring doctors rethink their plans

As some OBGYNs leave the state, some future doctors are also reconsidering their employment options.

Nicolette Jessen, 27, just graduated from medical school and had hoped to return home to Sandpoint to serve as an OBGYN.

Now, she has to change her plans.

“When I found out about all of this, I was in mourning,” Jessen told TODAY.com. “Sandpoint was my plan A, B, C and D, but what do you put first? Do you put your desire to have a family in a safe area first, or your desire to be a full-scope provider who can provide abortion care? It’s painful.”

“Things can change, and hopefully they do,” she adds. “I can’t even imagine what the current OBGYNs are feeling.”

A young labor and delivery nurse, who spoke to TODAY.com on the condition of anonymity because she is now looking for work, had worked at Bonner Health for nearly six years before she said hospital leadership announced at a mandatory meeting on March 16 that “our unit would be closing and we’d all be losing our jobs.”

While she said she’s “happy that light is being shed nationally” on the impact of the state’s abortion bans, she said she believes the decision to shutter the labor and delivery ward is due to “money and the greed of our health care and hospital system in this country.”

“Yes, these laws and legislation need to get out — they’re not OK,” the nurse said. “But ... most obstetrical units don’t make money for a hospital.”

According to one 2017 study published in the journal Health Affairs, 9% of rural counties lost their hospital labor and delivery services between 2004 and 2014, many citing financial issues. As a result, more than half of rural counties do not have access to hospital-based perinatal care.

A representative from Bonner General Health confirmed via a written statement that “leadership did meet with the staff and reviewed the reasons for the closure.”

“Human Resources and nursing leadership is working diligently to retain and encourage our valued and talented employees to assume other organizational roles,” the representative said.

The nurse is now applying for another job. And, she said, she’s re-thinking her plans to start a family.

“I planned on having a baby next year in that hospital with the doctors I trust and the nurses that I love,” she said. “I guess that’s out the window, because now I have no access to prenatal care outside of driving to a big city."

“I’m not even pregnant or close to pregnant, but it was in the cards,” she added. “Now I don’t know.”