ALBERT LEA — In the latest twist in a controversial plan, Mayo Clinic announced today that it might be ending childbirth services in Albert Lea and shift those services to Austin much earlier than the previous deadline of 2020.

In 2017, Mayo Clinic Health System rolled out a plan to consolidate services between the Austin and Albert Lea campuses due to financial losses, staffing issues and declining inpatient volumes

Albert Lea’s Intensive Care Unit services and in-patient surgeries have since been shifted to Austin.

Mayo Clinic had said it expected to move Albert Lea’s childbirth services to Austin in 2020, when construction of a new birth center was expected to be completed.

That timeline is now uncertain.

“With these transitions in healthcare come challenges. We are facing one of those now with staffing issues within our labor and delivery department, prompting us to review our options, including the possibility of moving up our timeline to transition these services to Austin,” Dr. Sumit Bhagra, medical director of Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea and Austin, said in a press release.

The release did not say how soon the Albert Lea childbirth unit could be shut down. Mayo Clinic officials did state that more information on this situation is expected to be announced in July.

“We are in the process of gathering input from patients and community groups as we evaluate the situation. We will be looking to these key stakeholders for their ideas on how to manage through the next 12 to 18 months to provide the best possible experience for our patients,” Bhagra said in the release.

Mayo Clinic’s decision to pull the plug on Albert Lea services spurred outrage from city leaders, citizens and longtime patients. A group called Save Our Healthcare was formed to protest the change, and it continues to gather weekly in Albert Lea.

Brad Arends, chairman of Save Our Healthcare, said Mayo Clinic’s decision to move up the timetable doesn’t surprise him.

“We tried to negotiate with them, and they were bound and determined to carry through with this plan. Save Our Healthcare and the City of Albert Lea have moved past Mayo,” he said. “We’re in discussions with an alternative provider to come to Albert Lea to replace some of the services that Mayo is taking away.”

Arends added that assuming that a new provider does step into the gap left by Mayo Clinic’s departure, health insurance premiums could decrease by 20 percent to 30 percent in the Albert Lea area.

Mayo Clinic previously reported that nearly $13 million was lost in 2014 and 2015 at its campuses in Austin and Albert Lea.

Mayo Clinic officials said there were 297 births in Albert Lea in 2018, and 369 in Austin. The numbers in Albert Lea and Austin averaged nearly 450 births per year at each site between 2001 and 2016, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. Austin didn’t fall below 400 during that period, while Albert Lea’s number has dropped four straight years. Fewer than 400 have been born in Albert Lea five of the last six years, bottoming out at 346 in 2016.

A difficulty with finding enough staffing to maintain two childbirth departments is driving the new uncertainty with the timeline, according to Mayo Clinic.

“Labor and delivery requires a full team of medical professionals to be available around the clock, including a surgical team with anesthesia, a delivering physician, a provider for the baby and several nurses. Depending on the circumstances surrounding the birth, telemedicine technology may be used to connect with a neonatologist or other high-risk pregnancy expert,” stated Heidi Gaston, Mayo Clinic Health System’s head of obstetrics and gynecology in the press release.

“Even with help from our colleagues in Rochester and other Mayo Clinic Health System locations, and the use of contracted physicians and nurses, we are unable to keep these large teams staffed at two locations,” she said. “We must review this timeline so our patients have the best health care available close to home.”

Mayo Clinic did not state how many employees are needed to staff a birth care center, due to the many variables involved.

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Jeff has worked at newspapers as a reporter, columnist, editor, photographer and copy editor since 1992. He started at the Post Bulletin in 1999. Kiger is the PB's business reporter and writes a daily column, "Heard on the Street."