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East County lawmakers urge state to block Legacy’s closure of Gresham birth center

Lawmakers’ letter contends an ‘unsafe’ care model sought by the health system for the maternity unit caused a wave of staff to exit
Activists on Feb. 13, 2023, protested the proposed closure of Mount Hood Family Birth Center in Gresham. | JAKE THOMAS/THE LUND REPORT
March 13, 2023

This article has been updated to include a statement from Legacy Health. 

A group of lawmakers from east Multnomah County have called Legacy Health’s planned closure of its Gresham birth center the result of a “self-created staffing crisis” and are urging regulators to keep the facility open. 

State Reps. Zach Hudson and Ricki Ruiz along with state Sen. Chris Gorsek asked the leadership of the Oregon Health Authority in a March 9 letter to reject Legacy’s request to close the maternity unit of its Mount Hood Medical Center. The letter from the Democratic lawmakers said Legacy triggered “large-scale resignations” by attempting to impose a care model on the unit seen as unsafe by management, staff and patients. 

“The closure of this birth center is discriminatory against women and their fundamental rights,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter addressed to interim health authority Director James Schroeder and Chief Financial Officer David Baden, who is expected to take over the agency’s top job later this week. “We ask that you please reject Legacy Health’s request to waive their responsibility to provide a birth center.” 

The letter noted that the maternal unit serves “some of the most diverse and vulnerable in the metro area” and its closure would be “a punishment to our already underserved families.” 

Legacy spokesperson Elizabeth Baker responded with a statement saying the health system understands the concerns of the lawmakers, as well as staff, providers and others.  

“This was a decision no one at Legacy wanted to make,” reads the statement. “But it’s the decision we had to make due to the staffing and financial challenges we face.”

The statement reiterated that patients at Legacy Mount Hood Medical Center will continue to be served by obstetrics and gynecology doctors and midwives. It’s also adding gynecology services and high-risk pregnancy outpatient care.  

A press statement issued by the lawmakers said the House Rules Committee has scheduled a hearing for March 21 to “learn more about the birth center and the impact its closure would have on the community.” A leadership committee, the Rules Committee is chaired by Majority Leader Julie Fahey, D-West Eugene and Veneta, while Minority Leader Vikki Breese Iverson, R-Prineville, serves as vice-chair.

The letter comes as the health authority weighs whether or not to approve Legacy’s request to close the maternity unit that serves about 275,000. For weeks, elected officials and community members have pressured Legacy to reverse course out of concern that expectant mothers will be put in danger as they travel longer distances to give birth.

The lawmakers wrote in the letter that they had concluded that Legacy had adopted a care model at the birth center that was seen as unsafe by obstetricians and other medical staff. The new care model caused an exodus of staff the lawmakers wrote, citing conversations with management nurses, doctors and patients.

Legacy, which operates six hospitals, announced on January 27 that it would be closing the birth center at the Mount Hood Medical Center by March 17 as a result of a reduction in the number of deliveries along with what it called “an unanticipated number of staffing vacancies and departures.”

Bahaa Wanly, president of Legacy Mount Hood Medical Center,  last week formally submitted the request to close the maternity unit to the health authority. The request described how Legacy intended to change the unity’s model of care from being staffed with obstetric physicians to doctors taking calls from home and midwives providing around-the-clock coverage. 

“Legacy's intention was never to close the Family Birth Center, but to move to a financially sustainable obstetrical coverage model,” Wanly wrote in the request. “However, due to substantial resignations from physicians who did not want to change the model, it became impossible to staff the Family Birth Center and ongoing OB-GYN call.”

In anticipation of the closure, Legacy planned to build up women-centered health services at the Gresham hospital while training emergency room staff for deliveries, according to the request. Additionally, Legacy planned to direct expectant mothers to Randall Children’s Hospital in Portland and have Life Flight Air Services ready for emergencies. 

The press statement from the lawmakers said that Life Flight on average costs $40,000 and will burden “some of the state’s most financially vulnerable and under-insured families.”

“Legacy Health’s plan to replace experts in maternal care with emergency department staff given an additional eight-hour training is unsafe, and contrary to accredited medical standards,” lawmakers wrote in their letter. “Legacy Health’s plan to transport emergency patients via short-staffed Life Flights is unrealistic, further burdening EMS and mothers. Legacy Health’s plan to ask families to drive to the next hospital is irresponsible.”

You can reach Jake at [email protected] or via Twitter @jakethomas2009.