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Multnomah County leaders say closure of Legacy birth center would boost disparities

County commissioners join a chorus of voices pressing Legacy to keep open a labor and delivery facility that serves east county
Activists on Feb. 13, 2023, protested the proposed closure of Mount Hood Family Birth Center in Gresham. | JAKE THOMAS/THE LUND REPORT
February 20, 2023

Multnomah County’s elected leaders are warning that pregnant women and children will be imperiled by Legacy Health’s decision to shutter a birth center in an area already lacking in resources. 

All five members of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, acting as the county Board of Health, on Friday signed a letter pressing Legacy Health’s President and CEO, Kathryn Correia, to reverse course on its decision to close the Family Birth Center in Legacy Mount Hood Medical Center Gresham. The letter cited existing health disparities and potential delays in emergency response times in the county’s poorer and more diverse eastern edge. 

Legacy did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter.

Legacy officials have said they are  planning to close the birth center on March 17 citing its relatively low number of deliveries and high costs. The health system has said it will continue offering women’s health services while directing expectant mothers to Randall Children’s Hospital at Legacy Emanuel in North Portland or other area hospitals. 

Multnomah County commissioners are now joining other elected officials, health care workers and community members who have raised alarms about the planned closure, pointing to how it will leave a large swath of east county and Mount Hood communities without a facility dedicated specifically to deliver babies. 

The closure would force “those in labor to travel to the closest hospital available — either Portland Adventist or Legacy Emanuel, each 20 to 40 minutes away,” according to the commissioners’ letter.

“Some people may be able to drive or be driven to another hospital, while others will require EMS transport,” the letter continued.. “The EMS system in East Multnomah County is already overburdened and short staffed, with long wait times. Neither of these proposed solutions is workable in a high-risk delivery situation that could lead to the tragic loss of life to both a mother and a child.”

The letter noted that the birth center’s planned closure creates a “service gap” for some of the county’s “highest-risk communities.”

“High-risk pregnancies and low birthweight are major concerns for communities of color and low-income communities, all of which exist in higher concentrations in East Multnomah County,” reads the letter. “There are many factors that contribute to these issues, including social determinants of health, access to healthcare, and maternal health disparities.”

Legacy, which operates six hospitals, has previously stated that administrators reluctantly made the decision to close the family birth center after finding no way around financial and operational challenges to keep it open. The health system cited problems with escalating costs and dwindling staff. 

The Legacy Mount Hood Medical Center is considered a “general hospital” under state law and must provide maternity services unless the Oregon Health Authority approves a waiver, authority spokesman Jonathan Modie told The Lund Report in an email. He said that as of February 16, the authority has not received Legacy’s waiver request.  

Legacy’s request must describe the circumstances that justify the waiver, including what alternatives were considered and why they were deemed unviable, according to Modie. The request must also show how the closure will not place patients in jeopardy and will instead maintain or improve their health and safety. 

Closures of labor and delivery facilities in Oregon aren’t unheard of. St. Charles Health System in 2019 closed the Redmond Family Birthing Center and announced it would be able to care for expectant mothers in the area under a new obstetrics program. 

County Commissioner Lori Stegmann, whose district encompasses the Mount Hood birth center, spearheaded the letter. She said during a board meeting last week that while she appreciated Legacy’s struggles, the health system has obligations. 

“While I understand that economics are at play, I think that hospitals have a moral duty to provide services, especially around women's health care,” she said.

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