Oregon Senators Reach Out to HHS Over Baker City Birthing Center Closure

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

By: Garrett Christensen

Elkhorn Media Group

BAKER CITY – In response to the impending discontinuation of obstetrical services at Saint Alphonsus Medical Center in Baker City, and the subsequent effort by state officials to negotiate a continuation of said services, Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeffery Merkley have reached out to Xavier Becerra, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In a letter addressed to Secretary Becerra, the senators further restate Governor Tina Kotek’s request that U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) Commissioned Corps Officers be dispatched to Saint Alphonsus to help resolve the situation. The full text of the letter as provided by the U.S. Senate is as follows:

“Dear Secretary Becerra, 

We are writing to express our full support for Governor Kotek’s urgent request to deploy United States Public Health Service (USPHS) Commissioned Corps officers to address the pressing need for safe maternal health care in Baker City, Oregon. 

Baker City is located in rural Oregon, where it is becoming harder for expectant parents to access prenatal care and birthing services. Hospitals in rural Oregon and rural communities across the country are unable to recruit qualified health care workers, and maternity centers in rural areas are delivering a lower volume of births on an annual basis. The St. Alphonsus Medical Center’s maternity center plays a vital role in providing essential obstetric (OB) services to residents of Baker City and surrounding rural communities. Its sudden, unexpected decision to close its maternity center on July 30, 2023, will leave expectant parents in Baker City and the underserved, rural region of eastern Oregon without access to safe maternal health care. 

While Baker City is adjacent to an interstate freeway, a number of its residents live in rural, frontier communities that stretch over winding, two-lane roads. Without the St. Alphonsus maternity center, expectant moms will have to travel 45 miles through a mountain pass to the nearest hospital for birthing services and prenatal care in La Grande, Oregon. This commute can be treacherous in the winter, and the route is frequently closed, leading to commutes as long as three hours. Mothers in labor could face emergency births as they attempt to reach a hospital, and expectant moms would face reduced access to essential medical care. This will only exacerbate the national maternal mortality crisis. 

State officials in Oregon are working with the leadership of St. Alphonsus Medical Center to address this urgent situation. Importantly, the State has offered its price agreements with health care staffing agencies to provide St. Alphonsus with affordable options for OB trained RNs, and the State has committed to help streamline the licensing process for out-of-state RNs. The State is also working on longer-term solutions, including examining rates for Medicaid providers who deliver maternity services, providing resources to support transportation to and home visits by maternal health providers, and providing financial support for hospitals and nurse educator training resources to develop the hospital workforce. However, Oregon has exhausted all of their State-level resources, and the Governor is now seeking the expertise and support of the USPHS Commissioned Corps to promptly address the situation. Specifically, the Governor is requesting the deployment of 6 RNs with OB training to staff the St. Alphonsus maternity center for 6-12 months.

The complexity and urgency of the situation in Baker City necessitate additional resources and expertise that the USPHS Commissioned Corps can provide. By deploying USPHS Commissioned Corps officers, HHS will provide St. Alphonsus with the skilled health care workers it needs to keep its maternity center open beyond July 30. In addition, deployment of these federal resources will provide expectant parents with access to high quality prenatal and birthing services, combat the potential for increased maternal mortality rates, and help reduce health disparities for rural communities. It is critical for HHS to support Baker City in the short term while the community works to identify long-term solutions for alternate safe maternal health care. 

Thank you for your prompt attention to this urgent request to deploy USPHS Commissioned Corps officers to address the pressing need for maternal health care in Baker City, Oregon. If you need additional information about this request, please reach out to Kripa Sreepada at  Kripa_Sreepada@finance.senate.gov and Jessica Keys at Jessica_Keys@merkley.senate.gov.”