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

A northern 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 northern Idaho, lost its pediatric coverage and saw a decline in annual deliveries, according to a Friday news release.

These factors, along with new Idaho laws that criminalize abortions that the hospital says have caused doctors to leave the state, led Bonner General to the decision to halt 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 press release read. “Consequences for Idaho physicians providing the standard of care may include civil litigation and criminal prosecution.”

An OB/GYN resigned from Bonner Health due to laws.

The hospital tried to avoid interrupting the service, but it became more difficult to recruit doctors, according to the press release.

“We have done everything we can to avoid eliminating these services,” Ford Elsaesser, chairman of the board of Bonner General Health, 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 several laws that amounted to a near total ban on abortion, allowing defenses in court only for abortions performed in documented cases of rape, incest or to save the life of a pregnant person.

The vagueness of the law makes it likely that doctors will forgo providing legal abortions but also need care for miscarriages, a lawsuit against the bill has argued.

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

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

“It’s absolutely abhorrent that we’re in this era where the delivery of safe health care is criminalized,” said Paul Dillon, vice president of public affairs at 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 more than they would have to receive obstetric care.

“It’s a devastating blow to access to health care in begging,” Dillon said.

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

Traveling further 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 mortality rates were 62% higher in states with abortion restrictions in 2020 than in states with more access.

Bonner General currently employs four obstetricians/gynecologists and one family nurse practitioner at its Sandpoint Women’s Health clinic. The Women’s Health Clinic will remain open and plans to work with Kootenai Health, located nearly 50 miles away in Coeur d’Alene, to provide obstetric care.

“Kootenai Health has a long-standing, positive relationship with Bonner General Health and will continue to work with them to serve our region,” Kootenai Health said in a statement. “Leaders from both hospitals are working together to identify barriers to care for the patient population impacted by this closure and create solutions to ensure a quality birthing experience.

Kootenai Health recently opened a new family birthing center which includes an intensive neonatal unit. The hospital delivers an average of 2,200 babies 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 Country, rely on Sandpoint Women’s Health Clinic, operated by Bonner General, for their OBGYN care. The hospital contracts with a local pediatric group to provide on-call pediatric hospital coverage, but does not employ a full-time pediatrician.

Bonner General will make “every attempt” to continue deliveries through May 19, but it depends on staff, according to the press release.

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