Bonner General Health to stop providing pregnancy, labor and delivery care as doctors flee state over abortion laws

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Mar. 17—A North Idaho hospital will stop offering pregnancy care this spring due, in part, to Idaho laws that criminalize abortion care.

Bonner General Health in Sandpoint will stop offering labor and delivery services in May, the hospital announced Friday.

Bonner General, which serves much of rural North Idaho, lost pediatric coverage and has seen a decrease in yearly deliveries, according to a Friday news release.

Those factors, along with new Idaho laws that criminalize abortions that the hospital said has caused physicians to leave the state, led Bonner General to the decision to discontinue obstetric care.

"The Idaho legislature continues to introduce and pass bills that criminalize physicians for medical care nationally recognized as the standard of care," the news release reads. "Consequences for Idaho Physicians providing the standard of care may include civil litigation and criminal prosecution."

One OB-GYN has resigned from Bonner Health over the laws.

The hospital tried to avoid discontinuing service, but it has become more difficult to recruit physicians, the news release said.

"We have made every effort to avoid eliminating these services," Ford Elsaesser, Bonner General Health's board president, said in a statement. "We hoped to be the exception, but our challenges are impossible to overcome now."

In January, the Idaho state Supreme Court upheld multiple laws that amount to a near-total abortion ban, only permitting defenses in court for abortions performed in documented cases of rape, incest or to save a pregnant person's life.

The vagueness of the law makes it likely physicians will forgo providing legal abortions but also needed care for miscarriages, a lawsuit opposing the bill argued.

The court upheld a civil enforcement law that allows immediate and extended family members to sue medical providers who perform abortions.

Hundreds of Idaho physicians opposed the laws, along with numerous medical organizations, the Idaho Capital Sun reported.

"It's absolutely abhorrent that we're in this era where delivering safe health care is criminalized," said Paul Dillon, vice president for public affairs at the Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho.

Women living in the northernmost part of the Idaho Panhandle will have to drive nearly 50 miles farther to receive obstetric care.

"This is a devastating blow to health care access in the Panhandle," Dillon said.

Planned Parenthood locations in Spokane County have already seen an increase in patients coming across the border from Idaho. There was a 75% increase in Idaho patients in January compared to the previous year.

Traveling farther for obstetric care can lead to worse health outcomes, Dillon said. A recent study by the Commonwealth Fund showed that there are a large number of maternity care "deserts" in states with significant abortion restrictions.

The same study showed that maternal death rates were 62% higher in abortion-restricted states in 2020 than in states with more access.

Bonner General employs four OB-GYNs and one family nurse practitioner at their Sandpoint Women's Health clinic. The women's health clinic will remain open and plans to collaborate with Kootenai Health, located nearly 50 miles away in Coeur d'Alene, to provide obstetric care.

"Kootenai Health has a longstanding positive relationship working with Bonner General Health and will continue to collaborate with them to serve our region," Kootenai Health said in a statement. "Leadership from both hospitals are working together to identify any barriers to care for the patient population affected by this closure and are creating solutions to ensure a quality birth experience."

Kootenai Health recently opened a new Family Birth Center that includes a neonatal intensive unit. The hospital delivers 2,200 babies on average each year.

Last year, 265 babies were delivered at Bonner General, part of a steady annual decrease, according to the hospital. Patients in Boundary County, north of Bonner County, rely on the Sandpoint Women's Health Clinic, operated by Bonner General, for their OB-GYN care.

The hospital contracts with a local pediatric group to provide inpatient pediatric coverage on call but does not employ a full-time pediatrician.

Bonner General will make "all attempts" to continue deliveries through May 19, but that is dependent on staffing, according to the news release.