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As birthing ward set to close, County residents worry about Northern Maine Medical Center's future

Save NMMC leader Toby Jandreau speaks to a crowd at the Fort Kent town hall on Tuesday, May 22, 2023. The group is calling for Northern Maine Medical Center administration to talk to them about the hospital's situation.
Caitlin Andrews
Maine Public
Save NMMC leader Toby Jandreau speaks to a crowd at the Fort Kent town hall on Tuesday, May 22, 2023. The group is calling for Northern Maine Medical Center administration to talk to them about the hospital's situation.

The Fort Kent town hall is just a short walk away from the Canadian border. Down the street is a landmark where U.S. Route 1 begins.

On a Tuesday night, people who live at the top of Aroostook County were packed into the town hall to talk about Northern Maine Medical Center.

Northern Maine Medical announced earlier this month that it's closing its obstetrics ward due to low numbers of births, and is trying to fix a budget deficit and combat staffing difficulties. The group Save NMMC quickly formed in response, and pulled together the forum to give the public an outlet to air their concerns.

At risk, supporters say, is the community's future. The hospital, opened in 1952 by a Catholic order of nuns, is still one of Fort Kent's biggest employers. But Save NMMC says that in the last year, more than a dozen providers have left, or say they've been pressed to leave.

The American Hospital Association reported last year that 136 rural hospitals closed from 2010 to 2021, and cited waning patient volumes, low Medicaid reimbursement rates and higher staffing costs. But Save NMMC members have been skeptical of the hospital's claims that it is struggling; some more sympathetic to the hospital say its struggles are no different than what other rural hospitals face.

Among those who turned out was former hospital board member Thomas Kent of Madawaska.

"I'm sick and tired of the revolving door," he said. "The doctors, I just get comfortable with one and then they leave."

Janine Welch's husband was a family physician at the hospital until this year. She said they will have to leave the region, and feels they were pushed out by hospital administration.

"It's not, you know, my first home, but my neighbors have made me family, we're so close. And I can't stand that, that we have to leave."

It's a story Marty Wilder told the crowd she saw play out at her own local hospital in Bradford, Pennsylvania, after Northern Maine Medical Center's current CEO took over. The two towns are similar, she told the audience over Zoom.

"Until this happened, we had a really good hospital, you guys probably do too. Everything was going along fine," she said. "You know, we had no inkling that there was any trouble till they closed the maternity wards."

Wilder said the hospital now has only 10 inpatient beds, as services were consolidated after then-CEO Jeff Zewe closed the birthing unit there in 2019.

Jennifer Levesque, a leader of the group Save NMMC, says she hopes Wilder's story doesn't play out in Fort Kent.

"That's their past. I don't know if it's our present, and I hope it's not our future," she said. "But I'm worried, I'm really worried."

Board members and hospital administration were in attendance but were not invited to speak. One of them was hospital chief operating officer Alain Bois. He and Zewe told reporters last week that the hospital could face a loss of more than $10 million dollars this year.

He said after the forum Tuesday that more information will be available when the nonprofit hospital's 990s are made public.

Bois could not confirm how many people had left the hospital. But he said he would have offered some insight into concerns if he had been allowed to speak

"We've tried to be transparent about where we're at, the challenges that is facing multiple rural hospitals across America," he said.

Some in attendance at the Fort Kent town hall, including local pharmacist Charlie Ouelette, defended the board. Ouelette said it was making the best choices it could in a tough situation.

"I think it's a little ingenuous to basically say, save NMMC from what the board is doing, what the hospital's doing," he said. "I think they're trying to do that."

And Fort Kent selectmen Jake Robichaud said while he welcomed the forum as a means of gathering input, hospital administrators have heard these kinds of concerns from the public before.

"But I don't believe that anything they're hearing is new," he said. "I was born and raised here. People have moved here and moved away for generations."

As locals filed out Tuesday night, they signed petitions seeking information, including about the hospital's finances. They also picked up black-and-white yard signs that read "Save NMMC."

After the forum, hospital board chair Donald Guimond said he didn't know what the trustees might do about Save NMMC's demands. But he said there are some details, such as why some employees have left, that can't be disclosed for privacy reasons.

"The outcome will be what the outcome will be, I don't predispose what might come of this," he said. "I suspect that some other concerns may be answered. Then some may not."

After Friday, anyone in Fort Kent who is ready to have a baby will have to make the 50 minute drive to Cary Medical Center in Caribou, or travel more than an hour to Presque Isle.

Corrected: May 26, 2023 at 1:18 PM EDT
More than a dozen providers have left NMMC, not staffers.
Reporter Caitlin Andrews came to Maine Public in 2023 after nearly eight years in print journalism. She hails from New Hampshire originally.