KENNETT, Mo. (AP) — The sudden closure of a hospital has left some expectant mothers in the Missouri Bootheel region scrambling for care in an area that already has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the U.S.
St. Louis Public Radio reports that Twin Rivers Regional Medical Center in Kennett recently announced that it will close in July. The closure will leave the surrounding area in southeast Missouri without an OB-GYN.
A hospital in neighboring Pemiscot County is taking on the Kennett hospital's OB-GYN and four other physicians. But that hospital is struggling to stay afloat, too.
Dr. Nelson Perez has been the only full-time OB-GYN at the Kennett hospital for several years. He said he typically delivers around 400 babies each year — about 100 more than a typical OB-GYN. When the hospital closes, his practice will close.
"I got carpal tunnel in my hands," Perez said. "I guess after all those deliveries."
Dunklin County, where Perez works, is the second-poorest county in Missouri and has some of the worst birth outcomes in the state. Babies die at twice the national average and one-in-five black children are boon premature.
Perez said he was blindsided by news the hospital would close, even though he is on the hospital's board and has served as chief of staff for more than a decade. He thought ownership by a Fortune 500, Community Health Systems, provide security, especially since the hospital turned a profit last year.
He is no longer doing deliveries. The next nearest obstetrics unit is in Poplar Bluff, an hour's drive away. Many of his patients can't afford a car.
"I have patients that cannot come to my office who live only five miles from here," he adds, noting how many of his low-income patients don't have access to a car.
Pemiscot Memorial Health Systems has been financially struggling for years. It nearly went bankrupt in 2013 and cut the obstetrics unit to save money.
When Pemiscot Memorial chief of staff Abdullah Arshad heard the Kennett hospital would close, he came up with an idea to bring five of Kennett's physicians to his hospital. The goal was to bring vital health care services while the community in Kennett works to raise money for a new hospital.
Pulling it off won't be easy. Renovating the operating rooms will cost over $250,000, and revitalizing the obstetrics unit will cost another $500,000. Arshad said doctors would need to put their personal credit on the line to keep their practices going.
The hospital also is hoping for help from the state through higher Medicaid reimbursements.
Meanwhile, Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health & Senior Services and an OB-GYN himself, is helping Pemiscot find new equipment like ultrasound and fetal heart rate monitors at steep discounts or through donations.
Williams said urban hospitals in St. Louis and Kansas City frequently update equipment and put old machines in storage. He's optimistic some of that equipment can be donated to Pemiscot.
Information from: KWMU-FM, http://www.kwmu.org