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Two Wyoming hospitals cut pregnancy services amid financial struggles exacerbated by pandemic

An adult hand holds a baby's hand.

Elise Mascorro gave birth to her baby in Rawlins this past February.

"My experience was amazing. I've never really been someone who liked doctor's offices or would, like, want to go. And I actually enjoyed going to the doctors," she said laughing.

This was Mascorro's first child and she had trouble with her pregnancies in the past. So, she appreciated having an OB/GYN nearby, helping her out.

But in the past couple of weeks, the Memorial Hospital of Carbon County in Rawlins announced they will no longer be providing labor and child delivery services in June. That was the second hospital to make the decision within a month. South Lincoln Hospital District in Kemmerer also cut those services.

"It's heartbreaking to see something that is so necessary for our community get taken away," reacted Mascorro. "Especially with how harsh our winters are. I mean, there's days that our roads are closed, and you're trapped for a couple of days at a time."

Stephanie Hinkle, the Memorial Hospital of Carbon County's marketing and communication director, said providing these services has always been tough because it's such a staff-intensive service. Nurses and doctors must be able to perform and assist a delivery and/or c-section at all hours because you never know when a baby will come.

"It's very, very difficult to recruit staff as a whole, especially in rural areas like this," said Hinkle. "And so somebody as specialized as OB/GYN, there's even more of a challenge to recruit those types of individuals."

And the pandemic made the problem worse. Staff was needed to deal with the surges of COVID-19. So, companies that provide traveling nurses across the country are recruiting nurses who are getting four to five times more money than if they were staff at a hospital. That was an attractive option and led to nurses leaving their home hospitals.

"Currently, as of right now, we are spending $100,000 a week on traveling positions," said Hinkle. "And as you can imagine, that very quickly erodes an institution's cash position."

This led to Rawlins and Kemmerer dropping their labor and delivery service.

"And that was kind of a choice that we ended up having to make because nobody wants to live in a community without a hospital in it," said Dr. Chris Krell. He's been a family practice doctor at the South Lincoln Hospital District in Kemmerer for the past 26 years.

He and one other family physician performed emergency c-sections and deliveries. He said on average they delivered less than 50 babies annually. But the pandemic left them with just two ER nurses.

"They can't commit to covering the operating room 24/7, 365 days. And with losing the ability to do emergency surgery, I don't dare to try to do even a vaginal delivery here. Because that vaginal delivery does have the potential to turn into needing an immediate c-section. And then we're an hour away to Evanston," said Krell.

Evanston is the closest hospital with labor and delivery services to Kemmerer while Rawlins is over an hour and a half away from services - potentially putting women in real danger. Wyoming Hospital Association's Eric Boley said unfortunately that's the nature of healthcare in rural Wyoming.

Stephanie Hinkle with the Rawlins hospital said their solution was to try to recruit more nurses.

"The SET program offers an opportunity for nursing students to receive funds for tuition whilst seeking their degree," she said. "In turn upon completion of a nursing program, those individuals then commit to a two year employment agreement with Memorial Hospital's Carbon County."

Kemmerer has also tried this and Dr. Krell said it would be a good idea for the state to develop a nursing school partnership that's similar to the WWAMI program where doctors have to commit to working in Wyoming.

For Elise Mascorro having good healthcare in rural small towns should be essential since it can help attract people to that town.

"It's inconsiderate to the people of this town. It's not like we are a town of 500 people and it's not necessary. Our population is over 8,000 people and for the first time, people are wanting to stay in Rawlins to have their kids," she said.

Rawlins just announced a partnership with the Laramie hospital where OBs will travel to Rawlins twice a week for prenatal appointments. But deliveries will have to happen in Laramie, an hour and a half away, unless it's an emergency.

Kamila has worked for public radio stations in California, New York, France and Poland. Originally from New York City, she loves exploring new places. Kamila received her master in journalism from Columbia University. In her spare time, she enjoys exploring the surrounding areas with her two pups and husband.
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