My Point of View: It’s time to stand up for rural mothers

Published 8:46 pm Monday, December 16, 2019

My Point of View by Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson


There is no room at the inn.

Email newsletter signup

Albert Lea now has the unhappy distinction of being one of the largest rural cities, not just in Minnesota but in the entire country, without a labor and delivery unit.

Over the last five years the Baby Place was open, an average of 350 babies were born each year. It is by far the largest rural obstetric (OB) unit to close in Minnesota in over two decades. Forest Lake and Moorhead, which both closed in the 1990s, had other OB units five miles away or less.

A recent article in the Albert Lea Tribune on the features of Austin’s upgraded C-section suite didn’t mention that Albert Lea’s Baby Place had almost all of these things in place already. Mayo fully renovated the floor just 11 years ago, but now the Baby Place’s warm and humming ward is standing silent and dark.

Not because it wasn’t good enough. Not because the staff couldn’t keep their skills up. Not because it didn’t win awards for its excellent service. It had all of those things.

It is closed because it didn’t fit Mayo’s myopic, money-driven vision of rural health care.

Here’s a census of the rural health care services Mayo Clinic Health System ripped up this year:

1. Alden: clinic closed

2. Kiester: clinic closed

3. La Crescent: clinic closed

4. Waukon, Iowa: clinic closed

5. Lamberton: clinic closing

6. Springfield: hospital and clinic closing

7. St. James: outpatient surgery closing

8. Waseca: outpatient surgery closing

9. Fairmont: after hours surgery closing

10. Albert Lea: med/surg and OB units closed

This list is actually just what I could think of off the top of my head, and 10 items is long enough to get the point across.

Meanwhile, as rural services disappear close to home, Mayo is partnering in overseas for-profit hospitals, including in Abu Dhabi, London and United Arab Emirates. For its world-class care, it is seeking deep-pocketed patients who arrive in private jets, not lowly vehicles with wear and tear and maybe a coating of dust from the road.

Dr. Noseworthy (now retired) and Jeff Bolton decided from afar that our mothers don’t need an OB unit in Albert Lea, even though they had hundreds of millions of dollars in operating margin at their disposal to find solutions. They decided more money was a bigger priority than our mothers.

Why is it important for us to stand up for our rural mothers?

The maternal death rate in the U.S. is highest and rising fastest in rural areas. It tripled in rural communities from 2000 to 2015, an unconscionable backward slide on decades of progress. One reason for this reversal is that pregnant women in rural communities are more likely to have risk factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and a history of drug use. Second, thousands of rural mothers have lost OB services in their communities.

This means the most vulnerable among us are losing access to vital services.

Keep in mind, too, that maternal death is the worst case outcome. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, severe short-or long-term health consequences occur nearly 100 times more frequently than maternal mortality. Rural mothers are disproportionately more likely to have close calls than urban mothers.

How do we stand up for our rural mothers?

1. Tell everyone who will listen about Albert Lea. Remember this fact — Albert Lea’s Baby Place had 350 births on average for the last five years it was open. Due to its larger than average size, it was not a typical rural OB closing.

2. Thank Sen. Tina Smith for speaking about Albert Lea’s loss of OB services and for sponsoring the Rural MOMS Act (S 2373), a bill which expands initiatives addressing maternal health in rural areas. This legislation provides additional funding to the HRSA for establishing rural obstetric networks and measuring outcomes so that inequities in birth outcomes can be addressed.

It also funds five-year grants for training physicians and other practitioners to provide maternal and obstetric services in rural communities. (This provision would help address the provider shortage Mayo repeatedly cited as an excuse for closing the Baby Place.)

3. Ask Sen. Amy Klobuchar to co-sponsor S 2373.

4. Ask Congressman Jim Hagedorn to co-sponsor the Rural MOMS Act (HR 4232) in the House.

5. Always maintain hope, and don’t believe the darkness of lowered expectations that Mayo is attempting to set. Other possibilities for labor and delivery exist, and a community that is passionate about its mothers keeps these things in its heart and finds a way.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson is a member of the Freeborn County DFL Party.