Imagine a small meeting room filled with about 25 people - more than half in some stage of a pregnancy. They’ve come to hear about plans for a brand new multi-million hospital and what they hope will be a state-of-the-art Ob-Gyn department. Imagine the reaction when the hospital administrator says it ain’t happenin’.
That’s the picture in remote Gold Beach, Oregon. Prospective parents looking for hope - and a couple of authoritative voices saying in no uncertain terms “no.”
Gold Beach is the county seat of Curry County on the far Southwest side of Oregon, just above the California border. It’s one of the prime tourist spots in the state. It’s also one of the poorest counties and - from a political standpoint - Curry is the most screwed up place I’ve ever lived.
Some background just in health care delivery there. The county has about 23,400 residents and one small hospital in bad shape, built in the ‘50's. About two-thirds of county residents live outside the boundaries of the hospital district and pay no taxes to support it. They also live 25-70 miles away from it. Bad situation all round. Yet all the folks expect the best care when they need it even though they pay no taxes to support it.
More than half the county population is in the Brookings-Harbor area 25 miles south of the hospital and outside the district. The hospital is trying to build an emergency room and a couple clinics in Brookings - where most of the people are - with some of the money approved for the new physical plant in Gold Beach. Dollars are stretched very, very thin.
Still, it was quite a shock to hear the hospital CEO and the Board President speak so candidly about the planned absence of Ob-Gyn services. None.
Curry Health Network CEO Ginny Razo: “If you’re planning on having a child lin Curry County, you’re rolling the dice. We don’t even have a physician to care for your baby. If things go wrong with a midwife and you come here, you’re putting yourself in a dire situation. This organization is not prepared to take care of such an emergency.”
Razo again. “I can’t afford three RNs and a physician to catch a baby. You’d have to have two Ob-Gyn docs because one can’t work 24/7/365. You’d also need several nurses and all that would cost another million dollars.” The situation now, she added, is there aren’t enough babies born in Curry to keep one doctor busy.
Board President Ryan Ringer: “It’s very black and white. We’re not interested in Brookings (25 miles South) because we want to serve Brookings. We want to make money off Brookings because it brings services here (25 miles North at the new hospital). I’m ultimately responsible for the health and well-being of this community. But I’m also responsible for the well-being of this organization (the district).”
Pretty tough talk. But, as I said, Curry is a mess in a number of ways. Unincorporated Harbor - where most people live - time and again has refused to merge with Brookings, which is incorporated. They don’t want to pay the city taxes. They want the services but don’t want to pay for them. Just as they pay nothing in taxes to support the hospital district.
Which puts more than half the people 25 miles away from a hospital they want and need but for which they pay nothing in direct support. So, if you live in Brookings-Harbor, you’ve got a 25 mile, twisting coastal drive when Mom’s labor starts at 2am or you rush 30 miles South to Crescent City, California, to another facility where there may be a qualified doc at 2am. Or, maybe not.
There’s more to this story if you widen your focus to all our Northwest neighborhood. A lot of other small towns are fighting all sorts of battles to keep their hospitals open and up-to-date. Some are losing. Burns, Moses Lake, Grangeville American Falls, Chelan and dozens more. Because health care is first and foremost a business. As patients, we don’t often give that a thought. But, birthing babies is a money loser. The profits are in surgeries, outpatient clinics and orthopedics.
Maybe that’s why the chiefs at Curry Health Network were so plain spoken in a room with a couple of dozen expectant parents. You gotta put the bucks where the institution is or it won’t be there. Makes perfect business sense.
But, to a 20-something woman in her last trimester and already feeling the baby inside, it’s not “business sense” she wants to hear. She must have had a long, dark drive home at the end of the meeting while feeling the kick of a tiny foot. God love ‘em both!