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Albert Lea hospital closes labor and delivery unit

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People stand in front of a hospital while holding signs.
Members of the group Save Our Healthcare stand with signs in front of Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea, Minn., in June 2019 to mark the transition of Albert Lea's medical and surgical care unit to Austin.
Sarah Stultz | Albert Lea Tribune file

As a 13-year-old candy striper volunteer at the Albert Lea, Minn., hospital, Angie Obermeyer dreamed of being a nurse there someday. She wanted to work in the hospital’s labor and delivery unit.

Years later, in 2006, her dream came true. She got a job at the hospital, which for the last two decades has been run by Mayo Clinic. She still gets emotional talking about the job and her coworkers.

“Not everything is happiness in labor and delivery,” she said, “but we were a family.”

But in the summer of 2017, Mayo Clinic announced it would be moving labor and delivery services from Albert Lea to its hospital in Austin, Minn., about 30 minutes away. It would also end the hospital's inpatient and intensive care, but would preserve its emergency room and some other services.

That long transition ends Wednesday when Albert Lea’s labor and delivery unit closes, the final day when babies will be born in the hospital.

Mayo said its decision to consolidate services reflects larger financial, demographic and staffing challenges facing rural hospitals all over the country.

But in Albert Lea, residents protesting the decision have raised serious questions about Mayo's commitment to serving small communities even as it boasts strong financials.

For Obermeyer, the summer of 2017 marked the beginning of the end of her nursing career. Though she could have worked in labor and delivery in Austin, she took a different job in Mayo's Albert Lea hospital.

But she only lasted in the position a year, saying she ultimately resigned because her heart remained with delivering babies.

"It's a passion,” she said. “It's where you want to be. It's where you want to retire from."

Tricia Dahl, the operations administrator for Mayo Clinic in Albert Lea and Austin, said Mayo's decision to consolidate services was based on an array of factors: fewer patients, staffing shortages and doctors juggling difficult call schedules and toggling between the two campuses.

"Inpatient practice is really declining,” she said. “In fact, in Albert Lea in the last 20 years, we've seen a decline in inpatient stays. We've also seen a significant decline in deliveries."

In 2009, roughly 500 babies were born in the Albert Lea hospital. A decade later, that number hovered at about 300 — less than one baby a day.

That decline, Dahl said, meant doctors weren't always able to keep their skills fresh. 

"You want to be doing enough deliveries so that you use your skills on a regular basis,” she said, “both from a competency perspective but also from a job satisfaction perspective."

As part of the transition, Dahl said, the remaining obstetrics staff in Albert Lea has been preparing their patients for having their babies in Austin: making sure they leave with enough time to get there — and making sure they know where to go when they arrive.

Mayo’s Austin campus, she said, will soon open an expanded delivery ward and will have more beds available in other parts of the hospital to use during peak times.

But the consolidation still stings for many in the Albert Lea community. For the first time in generations, most Freeborn County babies won’t be born in a Freeborn County hospital.

Save Our Healthcare, a group that formed to protest Mayo’s consolidation efforts, has argued that those 300-some births a year at the Albert Lea hospital are enough to justify keeping its birth center open.

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson, a member of the group, said she's worried about whether patients in the largely rural region the Albert Lea hospital serves has access to the care they need.

"Mayo is putting money before mothers in Albert Lea," she said.

Meanwhile, Save Our Healthcare has attracted MercyOne North Iowa to the area. Services will begin slowly, Vogt-Erickson said, but she hopes the provider will eventually offer some competition to Mayo.

"We are definitely at a place in between, a low point in our services,” she said, “and we are committed to building those back again."

In the meantime, though, starting this week, Freeborn County babies will be born somewhere else.