Lydia Valenti
The Redmond Spokesman

If you go

What: Oregon Nurses Association information meeting about the potential closure of the St. Charles Redmond Family Birthing Center

When: 6:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 15

Where: Redmond Public Library

Anna Jones, who is pregnant with her second child, plans to give birth in Redmond when she is due in December. She said she is concerned about the potential closure of the Redmond Family Birthing Center, especially if it were to shut down before her baby’s birth.

“If I go into labor in the middle of the night, in the middle of a snowstorm, I don’t want to have my baby in the car or on the side of the road," the 34-year-old Redmond woman said.

She is one of many women concerned because St. Charles Health System is considering a recommendation from a task force of medical professionals to close the Redmond hospital's birthing center. The hospital says no caregivers will lose their jobs involuntarily.

St. Charles' executive team will consider the recommendation in a closed-door meeting Oct. 17, according to an email sent to Family Birthing Center staff Sept. 28. From there, the health system board will decide the future of the birthing center.

It didn’t take long for the community to respond after NewsChannel 21 reported Oct. 3 about the possible closure and move of services to Bend.

The St. Charles Redmond branch of the Oregon Nurses Union put together a printable petition the same day urging “Save Family Birth in Redmond” and posted it on its website. A group of nurses started handing out the petitions in Prineville.

Another online petition sprang up Oct. 4, gathering more than 700 signatures in the first 24 hours as people shared the link on Facebook.

The comments attached to the online petition and the comments on Facebook reflect the perception that the Redmond Family Birthing Center offers better care than the one in Bend.

The task force recommendation

Dr. Jeff Absalon, executive vice president of St. Charles Health System, addressed issues of money, capacity and efficiency, along with quality of care, in an Oct. 5 phone interview.

The task force evaluating women’s and children’s health services is a group made up of members from St. Charles, Deschutes County Health Services, Indian Health Services, and other physician, nurse and administrative groups, Absalon said. The group has met every two weeks over the last year to talk about optimizing services, culminating in an intensive meeting at the end of September.

One of its recommendations was to potentially close the birthing center in Redmond while optimizing birthing services in Bend and Madras.

The move would reduce the cost of offering the service by 15 percent, said Absalon, who added that they intend to reduce the cost to the patients in the process.

The health system has to be proactive to sustain quality services to the region, he said.

“This is currently a recommendation only,” emphasized Absalon. “Our costs are high and that’s true for St. Charles in general, with regards to women’s services.”

Absalon pointed to a variety of factors leading to high costs, including inefficiency.

The Redmond and Bend birthing centers are running at 43 percent and 48 percent capacity, respectively, in terms of beds, which is below the preferred 60-70 percent range, Absalon said.

Capacity is an issue of concern for many women in the area who say that they have heard that Bend fills up quickly or have experienced being turned away after having a scheduled induction.

Taren Penington, a Redmond mother of two, said that she was scheduled for an induction in Bend with her second child, but it was postponed because the Bend Family Birthing Center was at capacity.

Capacity is not only the number of beds available, but also affected by staffing issues, Absalon said.

“If we combined the two centers into one, we have the opportunity to have more full staffing on a consistent basis,” he said.

Absalon said it’s rare for all 28 beds at the Bend site to be occupied.

People are also concerned about the impact summer traffic and winter roads would have on mothers in labor having to drive to Bend if the recommendation is approved.

“The task force has taken all of those concerns into consideration,” Absalon said, addressing questions of travel time from outlying areas, adding that some mothers already drive long distances to give birth in Central Oregon.

Concerned mothers

That’s an issue that still stings for some Prineville residents, including mother of two Shenia Clark.

“You already took Prineville away from us, now you’re taking the next closest thing,” Clark said in a phone interview last week.

The birthing center at St. Charles Prineville — formerly Pioneer Memorial Hospital — shut down in 2009, according to Bulletin archives.

Clark had her second child in Redmond in December 2014. Because of a high risk pregnancy, she drove to Redmond three times a week for non-stress tests prior to the birth.

She says she was very happy with the quality of care.

“It was amazing,” Clark said. “The nurses were amazing, attentive.”

The road from Prineville to Redmond, however, was a challenge, she said, especially driving in snow and ice in the evenings.

Access to prenatal care became even more important when Clark fell in the snow late during her pregnancy and had to be monitored for six hours. She said she might not have driven all the way to Bend for care.

Clark says that increasing the distance to a full service hospital birthing unit would put pregnant women in Prineville in a difficult situation, especially if they are low-income.

She is worried that if women have to factor in a 45 minute drive each way, they may not go to the hospital or see their doctor if there’s a concern.

Clark doesn’t know why St. Charles’ cost savings matters compared to the safety of mothers and children.

Breanne Pinkert gave birth to her son, now 22 months old, in Bend, and her daughter, 4 months, in Redmond. A consistent care team is important to the 32 year old Redmond mom. She is concerned that the medical staff she has worked with at St. Charles Women’s Health would be able to assist with births at the Bend hospital if the recommendation is approved.

She and her husband plan to have more kids, so this is a personal issue for her.

With Redmond's rising population, the task force recommendation doesn’t make sense to Pinkert.

“As Bend fills up and the rent goes up, people are moving to Redmond,” she said

She isn’t convinced that making the decision based on finances would be in the best interests of the region.

“I don’t think that serves the community well," she said "I think it increases the need for ambulances and AirLink services. It brings up a lot of mom fears.”

From the nurses side

Gary Aguiar, labor relations representative for the Oregon Nurses Association and spokesman for the St. Charles Redmond chapter of the union, is concerned about the lack of public input and how quickly St. Charles will be making this decision.

“That task force did not include a single nurse from family birth anywhere — not Bend, Redmond, Madras,” he said. “It did not include community members. I think they intentionally selected citizens for this focus group who would agree with them.”

Aguiar said he spoke with a member of the task force — who was not willing to be named in the media — who said the task force format was “prescriptive” and may have led them to a particular outcome.

Dr. Absalon said in a follow-up phone call on Monday that they did receive some community input.

"As a part of the preparation for the work that has been done, we did enlist an outside group to conduct focused interviews with women," he said.

Absalon said that the executive team will be looking at many aspects in their evaluation and will consider their approach toward communicating with the community.

ONA’s primary concern is for the community and patients having fewer options.

"We’ve had a full service hospital in Redmond since 1950. It’s a growing community, rapidly growing. From that perspective it doesn’t make sense," Aguiar said. "People moved here because they thought there would be a full service community hospital."

Yearly capacity numbers tell one story, Aguiar said, but because birth is an unpredictable thing, there can be problems with day to day capacity and he believes blending the two birthing units will compound — not solve — the capacity issue. He said that twice in the last two weeks Bend has had to ask Redmond for help with a patient because they were full.

ONA is also concerned about the promise from St. Charles that no nurse will lose their job involuntarily. Aguiar said the numbers don't add up for the 30 or so nurses now working at the Redmond Family Birthing Center to keep their jobs — even considering additional staffing at the Bend Birthing Center or other openings in Redmond. Aguiar said that ONA is working to raise public awareness of the situation before the board’s decision.

"We want them to delay that decision a little bit," he said.

Nurses and community members have put signs in their cars, said Aguiar, and petitions are being passed around.

Libby Summers, a relief nurse in obstetrics at St. Charles Redmond’s Family Birthing Center, says she passes out the ONA petition wherever she goes.

“They did this in 2012, but there was such an upheaval, they changed their minds,” she said while passing the petitions out at a church nursery.

Summers said that this time it looks like “a done deal,” but that’s not stopping her from passing out petitions.

ONA will host an informational meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Redmond Public Library, Aguiar said.

"So it’s a community meeting where nurses and patients will provide information and answer questions,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-548-2185, lvalenti@redmondspokesman.com

Clarification: The Monday, Oct. 15, meeting is an informational meeting, not a town hall. An earlier version of the story was unclear about that.

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