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Rural Health Care Options Continue To Fall Short

Joe Green
Flickr via Creative Commons

What if you’re racing to the hospital, but it’s an hour away – or more? Pregnant women living in northern New Mexico have to cross over sixty miles to deliver their babies with a doctor or midwife. But in this state, half the battle is getting physicians to work in rural areas.

Isabelle Ortega is nearing the end of her third pregnancy. She lives in Las Vegas, New Mexico, where there’s no one to deliver babies anymore. She was given the option to drive to Santa Fe, Taos or Albuquerque for delivery.

“I honestly don’t think I would be able to make it to Albuquerque while I’m having contractions and all this and that,” Ortega said.

Ortega and her husband decided to go with Santa Fe, which is the closest but still an hour away. She said they’re both worried about the day she goes into labor, and the car ride that will follow.

“He’ll have to be in the back with me, trying to calm me down, and have somebody else drive us,” Ortega said. “So we’re still trying to figure out our plan as to who’s going to go with us, or if anybody can go with us.”

They have two young children and both work full-time. Ortega said each time she’s gone into labor has been different. Shortly before her second child came, she had severe back pain, so they went to Alta Vista Regional Hospital in Las Vegas. That was before the hospital stopped offering maternity services and closed its obstetrics unit in March of last year.  

“I was just 10 minutes down the road, but those 10 minutes seemed like they were forever,” Ortega said.

This time around, Ortega was getting care at Alumbra Women’s Health & Maternity Services, a midwifery in Las Vegas. But the midwives there could only go so far. They had to have an attending physician during deliveries, and with no OB-GYN in the area, they were only allowed to offer limited prenatal care.

“The only way we were gonna make it was to start delivering our babies again and there was so much uncertainty about when that would be, I just didn’t see much sense in it,”  said Connie Trujillo, who was a midwife at Alumbra. She said without the funds from deliveries, they were barely staying afloat.

“This year so far, every month has been a loss financially and we’ve really cut down our costs,” Trujillo said.

They had cut staff and trimmed their hours. They hosted fundraisers and applied for grants. In the end, it just wasn’t enough, Trujillo said. But she wants their work to continue.

“Because I feel that we really need a more sustainable health care system in our community,” Trujillo said.

All of the midwifery’s patients were transferred over to Christus St. Vincent, the hospital in Santa Fe. Trujillo says they tried partnering with them, but things didn’t work out, and the waiting had already taken its toll. The midwifery closed in June.

“I can’t afford to go into any more debt,” Trujillo said. “I’m already in a hole. It would just have gotten deeper.”

And the hospital in Las Vegas that stopped providing maternity care? No one there would do an interview with KUNM despite over a dozen requests. Alta Vista did release a statement saying there were two new hires for their obstetrics unit, who will start this fall.

Still, more than half of the physicians in the state are working in Bernalillo County. Barbara Webber from Health Action New Mexico said getting doctors to move to rural areas has always been a challenge.

“Especially when you get into OB-GYN,” Webber said. “That’s an on-call, 24-hour commitment.”

Webber said New Mexico is lucky to have freshly graduated doctors come here to work off their student debts.

“But they’re also considering family,” Webber explained. “Is there going to be a job in a rural area for your spouse? And are you going to get the schooling you want for your children?”

They often leave. Almost half of the state’s population is on Medicaid. Couple that with the health care tug-of-war at the federal level, and Webber said things here could get much worse.

“There are economic reasons to be concerned,” Webber said. “But I think there’s just a moral and human point of view that this is our children.”

Las Vegas is just one example of this kind of situation in New Mexico. Women in Tucumcari have to travel almost an hour and a half to Clovis for delivery. And in Santa Rosa, women have to go to Albuquerque, which is nearly a two hour drive.

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