This article has been updated to incorporate additional reporting.
Hundreds of would-be parents each year who’ve relied on Oregon Health & Science University to help them conceive a child will in the future find themselves dealing with a different company: San Francisco—based Spring Fertility.
OHSU will “lease” the services of five physicians engaged in its fertility services unit to Spring under a physicians services agreement as the company opens a clinic in Northwest Portland on April 1, 2024. More than 30 other care providers and other staff could face a mix of tough choices including a new employer or layoffs during a transition period that ends July 1 of next year.
While OHSU won't transfer all the clinic's patients to Spring, the change is significant in that OHSU has been a mainstay for aspiring parents seeking medical help to bear a child and one of the few fertility centers that offer fellowships and residencies for medical students. Moreover, given the California firm's backing, the arrangement marks a further expansion of private equity's role in Oregon's health care system. Already, OHSU's fertility services rival, ORM, has been owned by private equity since 2022.
The OHSU unit fields 20,000 visits a year concerning infertility, including about 1,000 new patients each year, according to Desi McCue, the senior director operations at OHSU’s Center for Women’s Health. About 623 obtain intrauterine insemination and about 900 pursue in vitro fertilization, or IVF.
Moreover, OHSU has been a prominent voice in calling for better access to coverage for fertility services. And as one of two providers in the Portland area, it has long sought to be the most affordable provider of fertility services in Oregon — and to be a resource for people who can’t find affordable care anywhere else. Costs of services at Spring remain unclear.
McCue said it’s regrettable that the change will be jarring and difficult for many employees. She said employees who are laid off will be added to the university’s “preferred hire” list and potentially could find jobs elsewhere at the university or at Spring Fertility. Over the long term, she said, it will benefit patients.
“We have 900 patients-plus on our waitlist, and we're just not able to keep up with the number of women who need and demand fertility services,” she said. “It's really heartbreaking and sad, because for a lot of these women the clock is literally ticking and waiting a few months could mean the difference between them being able to have a child or not.”
Spring Fertility, a well-funded chain, will bring two new physicians to Portland to help shrink that waitlist, she said. It also will bring improvements in care, such as the use of propofol, the preferred sedation for fertility procedures.
Asked for comment, a spokesperson declined to say how many employees it planned to hire for its Portland operation. "Spring Fertility is excited to be opening in Portland in Spring 2024. We will be operating a full-service IVF clinic and embryology lab," she wrote in an email. "We are looking forward to increasing access to fertility care in the Pacific Northwest with programs such as our no interest payment plan for patients interested in egg freezing, our shared risk program – the Spring Promise, and our IVF discounts for medical personnel, firefighters, and teachers."
But one OHSU employee, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the change has been poorly communicated within the unit, and morale is poor while distraction is high. Embryologists who spent years getting certified, or instance, will now have to take pay cuts if they move to Spring Fertility, or may need to move out of state.
“Quite a few people are going to be losing their jobs,’ the employee said, adding that many “workers are still in the dark (about their future) going into the holiday season. it's a very volatile time.”
McCue said more informational sessions will be held.
Local 328 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees shared a statement from its president, Jennie Olso, saying “Local 328 is waiting to see how things play out in July, when the changes go into effect. At that point in time, should there be layoffs, we will fight, as we always do, for our members and the communities we serve and provide top notch care for.”
OHSU officials likened the new arrangement to its relationship with Planned Parenthood to provide OB-GYN physicians.
The change will not affect the egg donor program that has helped power groundbreaking advances in genetic engineering at OHSU. That’s because OHSU intends to keep enough staff to keep that program running and also tend to a small portion of the fertility unit’s former workload. “Those programs will continue,” McCue said.
This is not the first time the fertility clinic at OHSU has partnered with an outside company. In 2021, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported how its relationship with a company called Integramed cratered, leaving dozens of patients in a quandary as the company filed for bankruptcy.
Asked about the risks in the new deal, McCue said that while there’s always risks, Spring Fertility is an established provider with active business relationships, resources, and access to modern technology.
“I don't anticipate (the change) going poorly,” she said.