The Doctor Is Out: 6-County Swath of Northern Pennsylvania will Soon Have No Maternity Care

From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Pinned to the door of Stephanie Zuroski’s refrigerator is a curling black and white ultrasound image of her baby at 11 weeks, 1 day old.

The baby’s delivery is still months off, but her worry these days is whether she will get to a maternity hospital from her rural Elk County home in time for the birth. Penn Highlands Healthcare Elk Hospital, 20 miles away, is closing its obstetrics unit May 1, leaving a six-county area of north-central Pennsylvania — twice the size of Delaware — without hospital maternity care. “I like being in the woods, surrounded by the Allegheny National Forest,” Ms. Zuroski, 32, said about the home she shares with husband, Nathan, 30, but “this is the downfall of living in rural Pennsylvania.”

Rural hospitals are in crisis, experts say, and shuttering maternity units is the just latest cost-cutting move to stem the flow of red ink. In addition to Elk County, maternity units in Clarion and McKean counties have closed in recent years at a time when infant mortality rates exceeded the statewide average.

McKean County, population 39,866, had an average infant mortality rate of 7 deaths per 1,000 births for the years 2016 through 2020, the most recent numbers available and well above the statewide average of 5.9 infant deaths before the age of 1, according to the state Department of Health. Infant mortality rates for the other five counties were not available from the health department. Cameron, Clinton, and Forest counties are the other areas without hospitals to care for new moms.

At a meeting Friday at the St. Marys hospital, which was closed to the public, health system executives said the hospital only had 147 births last year, far short of the 1,000 births needed for such a program to break even, according to Ridgway Borough Council member Zack Pontious, who was in attendance. Mr. Pontious didn’t think there was any chance the decision would be reversed. “I don’t think anything’s going to change,” he said.

Meanwhile, the population of the new maternity care desert will grow to 156,664 — four times bigger than Cranberry Township in Butler County, north of Pittsburgh, which is served by four hospitals, including one offering maternity care that opened in 2021. Cranberry’s population is about 33,000.

Read the full article.