Humboldt County supes may raise alarm over hospital’s services for women, children

Estelle Fennell: Loss would make 'difficult recruiting environment much worse'

The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors will consider sending a letter of support to Attorney General Xavier Becerra seeking guidance to protect children’s and women’s health care services into the future. (Google Maps)
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Humboldt County’s Board of Supervisors may join local officials raising concerns over the future of health care services here for women and children.

Board chair Estelle Fennell has authored a letter to the state attorney general, raising alarm at potential staffing issues at Redwood Memorial Hospital. The board is set to consider sending the letter at its Tuesday meeting.

Currently, the state requires the Providence-St. Joseph Health system to maintain pediatric and obstetric services at its hospitals (including Redwood Memorial), but the requirement expires in June 2021, which Fennell warns would put the hospital’s staffing levels at risk.

“The elimination of pediatric and obstetric services at Redwood Memorial hospital will make a difficult recruiting environment much worse by limiting practice opportunities for young physicians who might otherwise relocate to our rural community,” Fennel writes in the letter.

At its meeting last week, the city of Fortuna unanimously authorized a letter that similarly expresses concern over the future of women and children’s health care services once the requirement expires.

Providence-St. Joseph currently contracts with the Fortuna-based Redwood Pediatrics for a supply of private physicians at Redwood Memorial, but that could change once the contract is up.

Stephanie Dittmer, a doctor in Fortuna, said a large number of Southern Humboldt mothers who suddenly need to deliver their babies wouldn’t make it all the way to St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka. If Redwood Memorial loses its services, those mothers would be at risk, she said.

“There’s no other delivery service here in Southern Humboldt,” Dittmer said. “We need to make sure we have access (at the hospital).”

In a statement, St. Joseph spokesperson Christian Hill said the hospital remains “fully committed” to women and children’s services. He said the hospital is evaluating “the best way to configure our pediatric and maternity services” so they continue into the future.

“We, like any health care organization, face challenges with physician recruitment and availability,” Hill said in the statement.

“In Fortuna, local pediatricians are no longer willing to be on-call 24/7 to care for newborns with medical needs; however, local physicians have recently hired a second nurse practitioner in order to expand outpatient pediatrics,” he added.

The county’s letter asks Attorney General Xavier Becerra to provide guidance to ensure the Providence-St. Joseph Health system remains committed to state requirements.

The state added the mandate as a condition of approval when the St. Joseph Health and Providence Health systems merged in 2016.

Ahead of last week’s Fortuna City Council meeting, Redwood Memorial chief of staff Dr. Donald Baird suggested the health system will petition to be released from its state requirements even earlier than the expiration date.

Baird noted a string of staff-and-service reductions at the system’s hospitals in Humboldt County, as well as staff shortages in mammography and specialized care at Redwood Memorial.

Hill addressed the notion of shortages, saying the hospital wants the community to “know the facts” of the hospital’s staffing.

“While mammography services were interrupted when our only mammography technologist needed a personal Leave of Absence, the service is fully open and the hours have expanded,” Hill said. “Within the past year, we have expanded the Palliative Care team, which now includes a physician, nurse, and social worker.”

He added that the St. Joseph team travels down to Redwood Memorial on an as-needed basis, due to an “increased need of services.” The Fortuna hospital has added multiple new general physicians, and it’s building an $11 million inpatient rehabilitation unit, he said.

Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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