When an OB nurse coordinator quit, Sitka Community Hospital couldn’t find an adequate replacement and moved to closed its labor and delivery program three months ahead of schedule. Allen’s daughter was born here. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

Sitka Community Hospital closed its labor and delivery program today (01-05-18), moving up the closure date by three months due to staffing shortages. That’s not the only major change to the medical landscape of that campus. The Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium also opened a weekend, walk-in clinic today in the former Moore Clinic, right next door.

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In the labor room at Sitka Community Hospital, CEO Rob Allen draws up a leather chair. I take a seat on the delivery bed, covered with a purple duvet. His own daughter, Sabena, was delivered here by C-section. “I just remember feeling very relieved after a long day of labor without much to show and this beautiful daughter, this tiny little baby,” Allens said.

The end of baby delivery here intimately affects not only his family, but all families in Sitka – most especially five sets of parents due to deliver between now and March 30th. That’s when hospital leadership was aiming to end OB, while maintaining prenatal and postnatal services. Then the hospital’s nurse OB coordinator, who was on a three month contract, suddenly quit. She proved difficult to replace.

ALLEN: When we couldn’t find replacement it just seemed obvious we’d have to stop.
KWONG: Why did she decide to quit?
ALLEN: She didn’t feel comfortable with our program. She didn’t think that we were able to provide the support that she felt was necessary to do her job and to do it to her satisfaction.

The last baby to be born at Sitka Community Hospital was delivered on December 30th. The ward is quiet now. Allen said he’s disappointed to be ending the program so abruptly. ” This is not what we were planning. We were hoping to end it in a more carefully laid out manner, but just knowing that the safety of our patients comes first…we did not want to have any concerns there or problems there,” he said.

Instead, those five couples will give birth at SEARHC’s Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital by one of seven doctors on rotation. Two of those doctors – Dr. Charles Roesel and Dr. Jason Koskinen – are from Sitka Community and the hospital will continue to collect revenue from their work.

In ending OB, Allen estimates the net savings to be as much as $100,000, but this decision was never about money. It was driven by staffing shortages. A lack of qualified nurses is also what prompted the closure of OB from 2009 to 2011.

Meanwhile, Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital is preparing for those new families. They have five primary care physicians that deliver babies, as well as a board-certified obstetrician.

While the collaboration is happening sooner than expected, SEARHC COO Dan Neumeister says their program is well-equipped to take it on. “Providing OB services is kind of like providing firehouse services. You got to be ready 24/7, regardless of whether you have 50 deliveries or 60 deliveries or 70 deliveries, so it doesn’t affect us too much at all,” he said.

SEARHC has opened a weekend, walk-in clinic in the Totten Building. While they hospitals are collaborating on obstetrics, they are active competitors in clinical care. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

Roughly 100 babies are delivered in Sitka each year and starting now, the hospitals will collaborate on bringing them into the world.

That’s not the case, however, with clinical care. SEARHC has opened a weekend walk-in clinic they’re calling the Sitka Medical Center “Express Clinic,” that will compete directly with Mountainside Family Healthcare. It’s not for serious illnesses or accidents, but those day-to-day health  complaints.  

“Think about folks that need care for sore throats, need care of other types of simple illnesses,” Neumeister said. “We’ll be able to see them, write prescriptions and help them move on very quickly.”

SMC’s Express Clinic is located in the former Moore Clinic, sold to SEARHC by Dr. John Totten. The building is located just a few steps from Sitka Community Hospital.

Right now, it’s open Friday through Monday, but Neumeister says SEARHC eventually plans to open it seven days a week. There are two exam rooms and the attending physician will see patients on a sliding scale based on income. “The fees drastically drop…as low as $50 or $25 per visit,” he said.

Sitka Community once had its eye on the “Totten Building” as a place for expanding administrative operations, but SEARHC swooped in and bought it first. The hospital is instead focused instead on building a modular unit for the clinic, which will expand the physical footprint of the facility and lower patient wait times. As for the obstetrics ward, Allen has a few services in mind: cardiology, swing-beds. He said these plans will come to fruition in the coming months.