Northern Maine Medical Center said declining birth rates and staff shortages have made it difficult to sustain its obstetrics unit.
Northern Maine Medical Center in Fort Kent. Credit: Don Eno / St. John Valley Times

Northern Maine Medical Center in Fort Kent announced Tuesday that it is closing its obstetrics unit, citing the continuing decline in the birth rate and staff shortages at the hospital.  

The closure of the obstetrics unit at the hospital on the Canadian border will be effective May 26, the hospital said, becoming the latest obstetrics clinic in Maine to close.

“The number of deliveries has continued to decline, and recruiting and retaining Obstetric staff with so few deliveries has been an ongoing challenge,” said Jeff Zewe, the chief executive officer at the hospital. “While we are disappointed that we have had to make this decision, we will continue to provide quality healthcare to all patients including expectant women through our primary care and other specialty services.”

In an apparent early sign of the difficulties at NMMC, the hospital briefly shut down its maternity care on April 16 from 7 a.m. to 1:30 pm “due to staffing availability,” according to Jackie Farwell, spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services.  

Hospital officials briefed the Fort Kent town council in April amid reports circulating throughout the community that several employees had left the hospital, Town Councilor Jake Robichaud said.

“The hospital is key to our town. It’s also one of the largest employers in the community,” Robichaud said Tuesday afternoon.

“They assured us they have not fired anyone, and they’re working their way through a deficit,” Town Manager Suzie Paradis added.

Talking points circulated to doctors by hospital officials stressed that the decision was not financially related. They also said that three employees in the obstetrics clinic would be offered other jobs within the organization.

In its statement, the hospital noted that more than 400 rural maternity units closed in the U.S. including rural hospitals in Maine between 2006 and 2020.

The hospital statement said that expectant mothers can deliver babies at Cary Memorial Hospital, which is about 40 miles away in Caribou. Zewe said his hospital was discussing with Cary Medical the establishment of outpatient clinics for prenatal and postpartum care at NMMC.

Zewe came to NMMC in February 2022, after working as president and CEO of Upper Allegheny Health System in western New York State.

This story was originally published by The Maine Monitor, a nonprofit and nonpartisan news organization. To get regular coverage from the Monitor, sign up for a free Monitor newsletter here.