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Idaho hospital closes in part because of politics


A rural hospital in northern Idaho is stopping delivering babies or providing other obstetric care, citing a changing legal climate in which recently passed state laws could sue doctors for abortions, among other things.

Bonner General Health in Sandpoint will stop obstetric services in mid-May. It also cited a declining number of deliveries and the loss of doctors in its decision, among other things.

Those pregnant in the city of about 9,000 — with an average annual snowfall of about 60 inches (150 centimeters) — will most likely have to travel about 45 miles (70 kilometers) to Coeur d’Alene for care, or to hospitals further afield in Idaho, Washington and Montana.

The decision to stop providing obstetric services was emotional and difficult, hospital officials said in a press release.

“We have made every effort to avoid eliminating these services,” Ford Elsaesser, chairman of the Bonner General Health Board, said in the press release. “We hoped to be the exception, but our challenges are now impossible to overcome.”

The number of deliveries has been falling for years with 265 registered hospital births in 2022, the statement said. Births have also declined nationwide and older people have moved to the Sandpoint area, officials said.

Hospital officials said the legal and political climate in Idaho was partly to blame.

After the Supreme Court of the United States removed constitutional protections for abortion last year, Idaho banned nearly all abortions in measures that expose doctors to prosecution for performing abortions, even if necessary to protect a pregnant patient’s health.

“The Idaho Legislature continues to enact and pass bills that criminalize physicians for medical care that is nationally recognized as the standard of care,” the hospital’s statement said. “Consequences for Idaho physicians who provide standard care could include civil litigation and criminal prosecution, which could lead to jail time or fines.”

Doctors could face felony charges and a revocation of their medical license for violating the law, which the Idaho Supreme Court ruled earlier this year to be constitutional. A federal judge has stopped Idaho from enforcing the ban in medical emergencies at Medicare-funded facilities.

Highly respected, talented doctors are leaving, according to Bonner Hospital officials, who said it would be extremely difficult to recruit replacements.

Dr. Amelia Huntsberger, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Bonner General Hospital, moved to Sandpoint in 2012 to work in the area, according to a lawsuit filed last year in support of an effort to end the abortion ban.

She told the Idaho Capital Sun in Boise by email that she will be leaving the hospital and the state because of the abortion laws and because of the Idaho Legislature’s decision to shut down the state’s maternal mortality review committee.

“Especially for rural patients, it is dangerous to delay medical care until we can say that an abortion is necessary to avoid death,” she said in her lawsuit. “Patients will suffer pain, have complications and may die if physicians abide by the Idaho law as written.”

Huntsberger could not be reached for comment by The Associated Press and messages left for her with a hospital spokeswoman went unanswered.

Leandra Wright told KREM-TV that after having a baby at Bonner General Health in 2020, she was looking forward to giving birth to her son there in August.

Wright, who lives in the nearby town of Sagle, said she learned about the hospital’s decision through a Facebook post.

“It’s nerve wracking and stressful and my stomach just kind of sinks in,” said Wright. “Now I have to recover with another place and have to drive to have my baby.”

officials at Kootenai Health in Coeur d’Alene said in a Facebook post that anyone who would have given birth at Bonner General Health can go to Kootenai Health’s Family Birth Center, where approximately 2,200 babies are born each year.

“Leadership from both hospitals is working together to identify any barriers to care for the patient population impacted by this closure and devise solutions to ensure a quality birth experience,” the post said.


Associated Press writer Claire Rush in Portland, Oregon, contributed to this report.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.