BLUE HILL, Maine – A last-ditch effort to save the obstetrics department at Blue Hill Memorial Hospital has fallen short, and hospital officials announced Friday that the unit will close at the end of May.
The decision came after a two-week fundraising effort and a series of meetings this week between obstetrics department staffers and administrators to look at ways to restructure the department and contain costs.
“We would have preferred a different set of circumstances and different choices,” Dr. Erik Steele, the hospital’s interim CEO, said in a press release. “It’s especially difficult to announce this closure given the tremendous efforts to save the program.”
The decision to close the obstetrics department came as part of the hospital’s efforts to deal with ongoing operational losses, which have depleted hospital reserves and brought the hospital to the brink of bankruptcy. The hospital’s recovery plan has included a number of cost-containment measures including staff reductions. Earlier this year, the hospital cut 34 staff positions and laid off 15 employees.
Last month, Blue Hill Memorial Hospital trustees unanimously approved a motion to close the obstetrics program as part of the turnaround plan. As part of the motion, trustees agreed to extend obstetrics if a group of volunteers, mainly hospital staff, could raise $600,000 by March 10. While many community members did step forward with gifts and passionate support for the program – with fundraisers that included belly-dancing, massages and T-shirt sales – the goal was not met.
Other ideas to reduce the hospital’s losses from obstetrics just were not workable, according to Steele.
“The past few weeks have clearly demonstrated that obstetrics here has a loyal following and has made a difference in our community,” Steele said. “This knowledge only makes our decision more gut-wrenching. We are proud of the fine care our staff has given to so many patients. Generations of local families have relied on our hospital for labor and delivery, and we are sad to write this final chapter in our hospital’s history of delivering babies.”
According to Steele, the decision to close Blue Hill’s obstetrics service is based partly on regional demographics, which reveal an aging population, revenue issues that arise from delivering just 120 babies a year and the demand for other services, including the hospital’s Emergency Department and primary and specialty care practices.
“In an ideal world, hospitals would not have to decide among their services,” Steele said. “We would love to be able to give our patients everything they ask for. Unfortunately, hospitals don’t operate in an ideal world, and we must embrace reality. At the end of the day, the majority of our OB staff decided that they would prefer to end the program on a ‘high note,’ rather than limit the services they have been able to offer for so many years.”
Steele stressed that the decision to eliminate obstetrics was not made in haste and that the hospital had engaged numerous consultants and task forces to look at the issue.
“This issue has been looked at closely for many years,” he said. “I understand that our decision [to close the unit] is not an easy one, but it’s been a long time in coming.”
Charles J. Hatfield, chairman of the hospital’s board of trustees, said the hospital needed to adapt to changing times and expressed gratitude to Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems for working with the local hospital.
“We remain grateful that EMHS has stood by our hospital to allow us to reach the point where we can make strategic decisions like this,” he said. “The fact is, without EMHS support, our region wouldn’t have a local hospital. EMHS has not taken us over; they’ve given us a future.”
Blue Hill Memorial Hospital is working with area hospitals, including Maine Coast Memorial Hospital and Eastern Maine Medical Center, to ensure that current and prospective patients have a broad range of birthing choices. Steele added that the hospital’s emergency room staff is well-trained to handle emergency situations and the babies that will not wait.