By Mike Linn
PNT Managing Editor
Portales women on the verge of giving birth know the road to the delivery room. It goes about 20 miles north up a winding U.S. Highway 70 past several traffic lights and westbound to Plains Regional Medical Center in Clovis.
It’s been that way for years, but Roosevelt General Hospital officials hope the future holds a much shorter route — down the same road, in the opposite direction, at a fraction of the distance.
Roosevelt County has the largest population of any county in the state without a hospital staff prepared to regularly deliver babies, a service local hospital officials are hoping to attain.
But Roosevelt General officials cannot provide a definitive timetable for providing such services, noting the challenge of recruiting qualified personnel can be a daunting task.
The RGH opened for in-patient service on Aug. 15, 2001, and hospital administrator James D’Agostino’s main goal was to provide for the general population first and foremost. Due to the financial strains of a new hospital, specialty service physicians — which include obstetricians for child birth — would have to come later, he said.
“When we opened the hospital I thought we would have OB service by now,” D’Agostino said. “But as we grow it will come. We all want it to grow.”
With high malpractice premiums and insurance rates on a constant upswing, recruitment of obstetricians to RGH and other rural hospitals statewide can be a challenging task in a competitive market.
In Texas, Medicaid allocations for obstetricians is almost double what it is in New Mexico. And in New Mexico doctors are forced to pay gross receipts taxes while in Texas they are not, D’Agostino said.
Malpractice service is about $40,000 annually for obstetricians, or double what a family practitioner pays.
“It starts multiplying when you start adding all of the numbers together and it amounts to many, many thousands of dollars, and if the volume is not there you can’t really afford to do it,” D’Agostino said.
Statistics show 297 Roosevelt County women had babies in 2001, most of them at Plains Regional Medical Center in Clovis.
Lonnie Alexander is the only obstetrician who works at Roosevelt General Hospital, where he does prenatal care for expecting mothers. He has a contract to deliver babies at PRMC in Clovis, where he and three other obstetricians manage a clinic.
Because of the contract, Alexander does not deliver babies in Portales, nor does he plan to in the future, D’Agostino said. Alexander did not return a phone call made to his office Wednesday afternoon seeking comment.
D’Agostino said he would welcome a team of at least three obstetricians willing to work at RGH, but ideally one member of that team needs to be trained for high risk child birth.
RGH board members also welcome obstetricians, but note recruitment problems have stunted their search.
“We keep trying (to recruit), they’re just few and far between,” RGH hospital board chairman Boyd Evans said. “Evidently OBGYNs don’t want to practice on their own, they need a partnership (of doctors).”
The price tag of such services could run the hospital as high as $1.7 million annually with incentives and bonuses, D’Agostino said.
RGH is equipped with two labor delivery rooms, while La Casa Family Health Center in Portales has none. La Casa employs one obstetrician and three other prenatal-care physicians, according to Jeanette Chavez, La Casa’s public relations director.
Like Alexander, La Casa’s obstetrician delivers babies in Clovis.
RGH’s budget has steadily increased since it opened: from $10 million (2001) to $12 million (2002) to $15 million this year to $18 million next year. Since the hospital is non-profit, all the money is rechanneled into the hospital’s growth.
Because the hospital has flourished, it’s only a matter of time before money is allocated for a team of physicians qualified in child birth, hospital officials say. The only question is when.