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Elk County looks for ways to bring back birth services after Penn Highlands shutters maternity unit

Penn Highlands Elk in St. Marys, Pa., on March 14, 2024.
Nate Smallwood
For Spotlight PA
Penn Highlands Elk in St. Marys, Pa., on March 14, 2024.

ST. MARYS — Despite grassroots efforts to prevent Elk County from becoming the latest rural Pennsylvania community to lose labor and delivery services, its hospital shuttered the maternity unit last week.

Penn Highlands Healthcare, a nonprofit with hospitals statewide, has said money did not factor into its decision to discontinue birth services at Penn Highlands Elk in St. Marys. Officials say Penn Highlands DuBois, where Elk patients will be redirected, will offer a “higher level of care.”

As rural areas are set to lose population, officials worry the loss will deter people from moving to the region in north-central Pennsylvania, which now includes six counties without a hospital or another facility that delivers babies.

Spotlight PA recently reported on the decision to close the maternity unit at Penn Highlands Elk and Pennsylvania’s widening rural services gap, which Elk County residents hope to fill another way.

When Penn Highlands announced the planned closure in February, a coalition of business owners and local elected officials started pushing lawmakers and hospital leadership to find alternatives. However, several meetings with hospital administrators were unsuccessful.

Business owners pitched various solutions to Penn Highlands. To address staffing challenges, they offered to help with recruitment efforts. To minimize deductible fees, they proposed working with health insurance providers to drive down costs.

The group also asked the health system to delay closing birth services at Penn Highlands Elk until at least November to give patients and emergency staff more time to plan for the change and explore other options, such as working with other providers or finding grants to support birth services.

Corinne Laboon, a spokesperson for Penn Highlands, said leadership appreciates the feedback shared by community members and reiterated that patients can still receive prenatal and postpartum exams, testing, and ultrasounds at Penn Highlands Elk.

“The thoughtful concern expressed to us reflects the true caring nature of the residents of Elk County and surrounding areas,” Laboon told Spotlight PA in an email.

Laboon did not answer whether Penn Highlands considered local offers to alleviate challenges or address community concerns about staffing and space at the DuBois hospital.

U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson (R., Pa.) and members of Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro’s administration met privately with Penn Highlands to discuss the shutdown, according to spokespeople. Discussions about care are ongoing, but the officials’ representatives did not provide specifics.

While local efforts to convince Penn Highlands to stop or delay the closure of birth services in Elk County failed, community members are still looking to find a way to bring labor and delivery back to the area.

“We really expect services to not only be maintained but to be added,” Zack Pontious, a Ridgway Borough Council member, said.

Pontious met with Penn Highlands leadership in mid-April. He didn’t expect to change their minds but told Spotlight PA that he wanted to express how much residents care about the kinds of care available locally.

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