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New temp nurses offer hope for Baker City birth center's future

Saint Alphonsus Medical Center-Baker City put new temp nurses to work helping with deliveries this week. Meanwhile, community members await word on longer-term federal help to avert the birth center's Aug. 26th closure, which could threaten lives.
August 3, 2023

Several new temp nurses started work Monday for the birth center at Saint Alphonsus Medical Center — Baker City, part of an agreement to buy time after an outcry from community members and officials led to delay of its closure.

Now, all that’s needed to keep the center open after August 26 are federal approval of six U.S. government nurses to work at the hospital on an emergency basis— as well as final approval of the plan by Trinity Health, the parent organization of Saint Alphonsus Health System.

Dr. Nathan DeFrees, a family physician in Baker City with obstetrical training, delivers babies at the hospital and has been tracking the situation closely. He said the community is cautiously awaiting what happens next.

“We’ll see what direction this goes,” he said. “What our community has told us through all this and what I know is a physician is this is a really important service to keep providing in Baker County.”

After the health system  on June 22 announced the birth center’s closure on July 31, citing staffing and financial concerns. Community members mobilized, saying that the community’s location between mountain passes meant the birth center’s closure threatened lives. 

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden and Gov. Tina Kotek took notice, and so did other members of the Oregon Congressional delegation and members of the Baker County Board of Commissioners.

Plans to preserve the birth center for at least six months rapidly took shape:

  • St. Alphonsus Health System said it was willing to hire temp or travel nurses to help operate the birth center through July 31;
  • Kotek offered the health system lower rates for the nurses available through a state contract;
  • At Kotek’s request, the Oregon State Board of Nursing provided emergency licensing approval to the new hires;
  • Wyden, Kotek and U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley requested that the U.S. Public Health Service provide six nurses to help operate the birth center for a period of 6-12 months;
  • The Baker County Board of Commissioners approved what amounts to matching funds of more than $500,000 to pay for lodging and travel for the federal nurses, if approved.

Final federal approval of the plan has not been announced, but high-level federal officials have participated in discussions about the proposal, suggesting they are open to the idea.

DeFrees told The Lund Report his sense is the health system’s final approval is the piece that’s needed to keep the center open.

“I think our county is supportive,” he said. “I know that our physicians are supportive; I know that the nurses that we've got want to keep their jobs. I think from that standpoint I’m optimistic. But it does require that we’ve got a willing partner to help with that, with the hospital.”

A Saint Alphonsus spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

On July 27, an executive with Trinity Health, the fifth-largest health system in the country, sent a letter to Sens. Wyden and Merkley asking for confirmation that the federal nurses would have the necessary expertise.

“We are eager to learn whether the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps is going to provide nurses trained with Obstetrics competency as this is one critical component to continuing safe Obstetric services beyond August 26.”

You can reach Nick Budnick at [email protected] or at @NickBudnick on Twitter.