Leader Blues

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

TOP STORY > >Hospital closes maternity unit

Leader staff writer

The birthing center of North Metro Medical Center closed its doors last night at midnight. Babies have been delivered at the hospital since it opened more than 50 years ago. The service is being discontinued because New Horizons for Women, the clinic providing the hospital’s obstetrical services, no longer has adequate physician staffing to do so.

About 100 women had already made plans to deliver at North Metro before the announcement in August about the closure.

With assistance from the clinic, all have made other arrangements with a different physician and hospital. This has been the most challenging for the 50 or so Medicaid recipients, because New Horizons for Women is the only obstetrics clinic in a wide geographic area that accepts Medicaid patients. Another quarter of the patients affected have commercial insurance or are self-pay, and the others have Tri-care insurance with the military.

“We were the only obstetricians in north Pulaski who would take Medicaid patients before they got a (Medicaid identification) number,” because of the bureaucratic red-tape and delays that are involved, Margie Litton, business manager for Horizons for Women, explained.

In the past, the clinic had five obstetricians – a sufficient number to share the unpredictable demands of delivering babies and other types of emergency ob-gyn care. But last year, physician Jesse Kane resigned, and recently Leasa Prince also left the practice. That left one full-time physician, Karen Grant, and two who work part-time, David Taylor and Renee Montgomery.

That was just not enough staffing, and the hospital chose to not step in and bring in another obstetrician, as it had with the hiring of Kane a few years ago.

“It is too hard to do obstetrics by yourself, to be on call weekend after weekend, and all the phone calls,” Litton said.

The clinic will remain open and continue to provide gynecological care, including annual exams, family planning, and infertility diagnostics. Grant is also contemplating a new service for teens – a consultation with a doctor to learn about gynecological health issues.

No hospital employee lost his or her job as a result of the discontinuing obstetrical services.

“We have not laid anyone off; everyone has been retained at the hospital,” Amy Arnone, hospital spokesperson, said. “A few of the women who wanted to continue working with women and babies, however, found a position elsewhere.”

No decision has been reached about how the hospital’s birthing center and nursery will be used, Pat Bond, member of the hospital’s board of directors, said.

The closure comes at a time in which the hospital administration and board are reviewing options to strengthen the fiscal position of the hospital, while maintaining services essential to the community, primarily the emergency room. Under consideration is elimination of some services that are not strong revenue generators and the possible addition of an after-hours clinic.

The board’s stance on the clinic concept is that plans are on hold for now, but “all of us want it,” Bond said. “We need more coverage, because things that are not emergencies put a drain on the ER; an emergency room is a huge cost to a hospital. This would be a great service and a great help.”

For “some months,” hospital leadership has been searching for a financial partner or buyer for the hospital. According to Bond, all potential investors have had “some Arkansas connection,” but no firm deal has emerged.

“We are continuing to talk to some folks, but everything tends to take longer than it is supposed to,” Bond said, agreeing that the current credit crisis is not helping matters. “But there are a lot of things going for the hospital – where it is located, a good service area – which can be very attractive. Hopefully, something will work out.”

To date, no services have been eliminated at the hospital out of financial necessity, nor have any layoffs have occurred, although rumors to the contrary have circulated for months in the community. The hospital board remains committed to keeping North Metro Medical Center opened to serve Jacksonville and the surrounding area.

“There are too many people in the community to not have services, so we will continue working on this,” Bond said.