Expectant Wisconsin mom wasn’t expecting her hometown hospital would close

Doctors at HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire delivered more than 800 babies last year. Those deliveries will have to be dispersed as the hospital announced its sudden closure. Photo courtesy HSHS.

By Salina Heller

February 5, 2024

Sacred Heart Hospital delivers more than 800 babies a year. Its closure by HSHS is leaving parents and health care providers scrambling.

Emily Kaiser of Eau Claire is seven months pregnant with her first baby. Worries are common in pregnancies, especially with that first one. But one stress that Emily could never have foreseen was her hospital completely shutting down.

“Quite literally the day after I hit the third trimester, I found out that our insurance was all up in the air, and the hospital I was supposed to be delivering at—Sacred Heart Hospital—was going to be closing a week after my due date,” Emily said. “It was definitely a surprise.”

Expectant Wisconsin mom wasn’t expecting her hometown hospital would close

Emily Kaiser was set to deliver at HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital in April.

Surprise Announcement

In January, Hospital Sisters Health System delivered the news that they were closing two hospitals that have served their region in western Wisconsin for more than 130 years.

Leaders said HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire and HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls would shut their doors by the end of April, citing things like financial and workforce challenges.

As part of the move, Prevea Health, a physician network providing primary and specialty care, will close 19 clinics throughout western Wisconsin.

About 1,400 people are losing their jobs and 40,000 people will be looking for other health care providers within the confines of their insurance.

Most of the previously-scheduled medical procedures at both locations have already been canceled.

Dispersing Deliveries

As the news settled in, nurses and other staff recently gathered on a cold, foggy morning in front of Sacred Heart to rally passersby for support. One of them was registered nurse Shannon VanNess.

“It makes me very sad,” VanNess said. “I don’t think the community realizes how big of an impact will be felt.”

VanNess has been at Sacred Heart for seven years, with the last five dedicated to the Women and Infants Center. She feels uneasy for her patients.

“The biggest concern is not having enough places to have their babies,” VanNess said. “The process is very scary already and now to find this out last-minute is very scary.”

VanNess said deliveries at the hospital have been on the rise.

“Last year we had 823 births and we were only getting fuller and fuller.”

For local lawmakers who are trying to help figure out where these anxious moms-to-be will go, that’s a big number to absorb.

“How does the math work on this?” said state Rep. Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire).

She looks to the nearest facilities, also in Eau Claire—the Mayo Clinic Health System, which typically hosts about 1,200 deliveries per year and the Marshfield Clinic, which welcomes about 450 babies annually.

“Say Mayo could take on maybe 600 to 700 of those,” Emerson said. “Marshfield’s got a much, much smaller labor and delivery unit; are they going to be able to absorb another 200 births a year?”

And what happens if a newborn is born too early or has medical problems? They’ll need more specialized care.

As for maternal health, there’s a postpartum period that also needs continuous, comprehensive care, also adding to the load on the hospitals.

Marshfield Clinic Director of Communications John Gardener said they’re attempting to solve the problem that’s come without warning.

Given the recent news, we are evaluating our resources so that we can provide care to those affected patients, including expectant mothers,” Gardner said. “The birth center teams [we have] in the Chippewa Valley and Rice Lake are preparing for a potential influx of expectant mothers.”

Quick Assistance

Obstetricians and gynecologists from outside clinics who use Sacred Heart for deliveries such as Emily’s, are receiving frantic calls in the announcement’s aftermath.

“My doctor has been really great to work with—my OB-GYN—but she doesn’t have all the answers yet either, there are so many things up in the air yet,” Emily said.

Those physicians are granted what are called “admitting privileges”—formal agreements between a physician and a specific hospital allowing the doctor to directly admit patients to the hospital and provide services to their patients in that hospital as medical staff.

Rep. Emerson knows that while there are big problems to fix in the long-term as this devastating health care issue unfolds, she and her colleagues are lending a hand as much as they can, to get babies safely delivered now. Officially, that looks like fast-tracking applications for doctors who need credentials to care for patients at other hospitals.

“They go to the top of the pile and nobody has to wait and wait two months, three months, to have privileges at a different hospital,” Emerson said. “That would exacerbate the problem.”

A Little Relief

Meanwhile, Emily is relieved her OB-GYN now has privileges elsewhere and her particular path to parenthood is back on track.

“I do feel better knowing at least where I’m going to give birth, who my doctor can continue to be, and what my insurance is going to be like,” Emily said. “There was a bit more peace of mind once this piece got settled.”

But Emily knows she’s a lucky one and others are still in a panic mode—and continue to face many uncertainties.

“I’m at more of an advantage than people in more rural communities would be. They don’t have options.”

Author

  • Salina Heller

    A former 15-year veteran of reporting local news for western Wisconsin TV and radio stations, Salina Heller also volunteers in community theater, helps organize the Chippewa Valley Air Show, and is kept busy by her daughter’s elementary school PTA meetings. She is a UW-Eau Claire alum.

CATEGORIES: COMMUNITY | HEALTHCARE

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