Oregon health officials have denied Legacy Health’s attempt to close its Gresham-based maternity unit, faulting the health system’s management decisions and saying patients would be harmed by the closure.
The Oregon Health Authority announced the decision in a press release Wednesday afternoon stating that Legacy’s rationale for closing the maternity unit at its Mount Hood Medical Center didn’t meet state rules intended to uphold standards of patient care. Legacy has previously issued statements indicating it was moving forward with closing the maternity unit by its planned March 17 date due to what it described as a lack of personnel to safely staff it.
The health authority’s denial of Legacy’s request to close the maternity unit, which had about 50 staff, follows weeks of concerns raised by critics, who said pregnant women in east Multnomah County and near Mt. Hood would be placed in peril as they drove farther distances to give birth.
“This shows the power of people - when we stand up to injustice, there are no barriers we cannot overcome,” state Rep. Ricki Ruiz, D-Gresham, said in a tweet reacting to the news.
The decision spells uncertainty for Legacy, which now faces an investigation by the health authority over the unapproved closure of the maternity unit. According to the statement from the health authority, hospitals that don’t meet state and federal requirements risk losing their ability to bill Medicare and Medicaid.
“We respect the state’s authority in this decision, and we are carefully reviewing the letter provided by the Oregon Health Authority,” reads a statement issued by Legacy, which stressed the health system’s commitment to patient safety and well-being.
However, the maternity unit will remain on divert status due to the lack of adequate physician staffing to provide safe patient care, according to the statement.
State regulations require hospitals to offer labor and delivery services unless they secure a waiver from the health authority. Bahaa Wanly, president of Legacy Mount Hood Medical Center, on March 6 submitted the waiver request explaining that the health system faced severe financial challenges from the pandemic and the maternity unit saw babies born there drop from a peak of 980 in fiscal year 2017 to 786 in 2022.
Wanly further stated that resignations of several obstetric physicians made keeping the maternity unit unfeasible and it would be on divert status by March 17. The hospital would continue offering prenatal services but would direct them to Randall Children’s Hospital in Portland to give birth, according to the document.
“The current lack of staff does not support waiver of the requirement to provide maternity services,” reads the waiver denial issued by the health authority. “The staffing shortfall is a result of (Legacy Mount Hood Medical Center) decisions to eliminate positions, place staff on administrative leave, and otherwise reduce staffing to further its stated intent to close the unit.”
The waiver denial states that hospital administrators hadn’t done enough to staff the maternity unit with other providers. It also states that a high number of pregnant patients with complications would need emergency care and some won’t be able to be transferred to other hospitals. The document cited emergency department staff who told the health authority they did not believe they had adequate training.
Legacy’s planned closure of the maternity unit “does not maintain or improve the health and safety of its patients,” noting that a significant number of expectant women will continue to seek care at the hospital, reads the waiver denial.
A larger number of people with limited English proficiency, along with higher percentages of families with limited education, inadequate prenatal care or on the Medicaid-funded Oregon Health Plan are served by the maternity unit, according to the waiver denial.
“Our goal is to ensure patients have timely access to maternity care,” Rachael Banks, the state’s public health director, said in a statement. “The closure of the Family Birth Center at Mount Hood Medical Center does not meet that goal.”
Ruiz, in his tweet, thanked fellow east Multnomah County Democratic Rep. Zach Hudson and the Oregon Nurses Association, which is currently attempting to organize staff at the Mount Hood Medical Center.
The nurses union applauded the health authority’s decision in a press release, saying it gives “Legacy yet another opportunity to step up and do the right thing for the people of East Multnomah County.”
“Now, with their waiver request denied, nurses are clear: Legacy must reopen the birthing center as soon as possible and begin the difficult work of rebuilding trust between a health system that tried to put profit before patients and the dedicated staff, and community members, who rely on them,” reads the nurses union statement.