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Local Health Officials Work to Fill the Gap in Cape Maternity Services (The Press of Atlantic City)

CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — Many expectant mothers in Cape May County should expect a longer drive when the time comes, with the official end of maternity services at Cape Regional Medical Center.

The hospital, which ceased providing maternity services on Sept 10, even as other services expand, is centrally located in the county.

Expectant mothers from Woodbine or the Villas section of Lower Township could get there in less than 20 minutes, while even those at the edges of the county, in the north end of Ocean City or from Cape May Point, weren’t more than 30 minutes away.

Shore Medical Center and AtlantiCare are far closer for a soon-to-be mom in the Gardens section of Ocean City, but for women in Wildwood, Villas and other areas in the southern end of Cape May County, the decision to close maternity services will mean more travel.

The Atlantic County facilities say they are ready to handle the increase in patients. In previous interviews, Cape Regional officials said staff members were working closely with other hospitals to ease the transition.

Dr. Blair Bergen, who leads obstetrics and gynecology with AtlantiCare, said his health care system has been working with Cape Regional Medical Center to help “ensure families have continued access to the quality, compassionate maternal newborn care and services they need and deserve before, during and after delivery.”

That hospital has the Roger B. Hansen Center for Childbirth at the Mainland Campus in Pomona, with a level III neonatal intensive care unit.

“The Southern New Jersey Perinatal Cooperative has designated the Center for Childbirth as the primary transfer site for Cape Regional,” said Bergen. “As such, we have arranged a special transfer process to ensure if a woman is pregnant and having complications, or gives birth as an emergency patient at Cape Regional, AtlantiCare will arrange for transport to and care of the mother and infant at our Center for Childbirth. We have also implemented a consultation service, through which Cape Regional providers can consult with an AtlantiCare OB-GYN provider 24/7.”

Shore Medical Center touts its maternity and pre-natal medicine, and its labor, delivery and postpartum suites, describing them as homey and spacious.

Dr. Jon Regis, who has been a practicing OB-GYN and primary care physician in Atlantic County for decades, said in a recent interview that health professionals in South Jersey have known that the change was on its way at Cape Regional and had time to prepare.

“There’s going to be a seamless transition of providers,” Regis said. He is the president of Advantage Women’s Health, where Dr. Salvatore Carfagno is the chief medical officer. Carfagno is also affiliated with both Shore and AtlantiCare, according to the Advantage website.

Regis also works with CompleteCare, which has locations in Cape May County. Regis said he has been working with health professionals in Cape May County on preparing for the change, and with expectant mothers and other patients to reassure them the process will go smoothly.

“Everybody has to be on board to make this transition,” Regis said. “Trust me, we’re not going to let anything fall through the cracks.”

Patients will be well informed through the process, he said.

“Nobody’s going to be scrambling to find out where they’re going to deliver,” he said.

State health data show Cape May County’s birth rate as lower than the statewide or national average. Information from the state Department of Health shows the 2019 birth rate in Cape May County to be 8.3 per 1,000 residents, compared to 11.2 for all of New Jersey and 11.4 nationally.

The county’s population has been dropping, and aging. Some observers indicate that an increasing number of summer visitors now remain in the county through the year, but data show a steady drop in the number of year-round residents.

Census data from 2020 puts the median age in Cape May County at a little more than 50, making it the county with the oldest year-round population in New Jersey.

Last year, 259 babies were born at Cape Regional, a fraction of the number seen at other hospitals. A spokesperson for AtlantiCare said that hospital delivers more than 2,000 babies a year.

Officials with Cape Regional cite staffing issues, not declining birth rates, as the reason maternity services were ended. The hospital was unable to hire new OB-GYN doctors despite what they described as generous offers and an extensive search. This year, Cape Regional embarked on a $12 million fundraising campaign for an expanded emergency department, and last year completed an update and expansion to its surgery center.

Reports show a national trend, with fewer physicians choosing the specialty and the current doctors facing an increasing workload even as the individual doctors get older and closer to retirement.

“I definitely don’t like the decision,” said J. Curtis Edwards. He’s the president and CEO of CompleteCare, a health network serving Gloucester, Cumberland and Cape May counties.

The health network has locations in Wildwood and Middle Township. According to Edwards and others, a majority of the women who gave birth at Cape Regional last year were CompleteCare patients.

Edwards said the additional travel distance for families in the southern end of Cape May County will be inconvenient but he believes in an emergency the existing health facilities are enough to care for mothers and children.

Edwards said CompleteCare is a federally qualified health center, which means it served otherwise under-served communities. Cape May County is only part of what they do, Edwards said. They see tens of thousands of patients a year, and serve as a migrant health center and community health center.

AtlantiCare staff say they will increase the focus on Cape May County.

“AtlantiCare’s OB-GYN providers and staff already see patients at our Health Park in Cape May Court House, and we will be expanding services in our Rio Grande practice in the coming months,” said Bergen. “We also care for women and families from Cape May County through our other women’s and children’s services. These services include our Maternal Fetal Medicine Program for women who are, or could be at risk for high-risk pregnancies.”

In the long term, Regis said, the region needs to recruit young physicians to serve as OB-GYN specialists. He said he is working on that, seeking to get women to commit to the specialty, and working to convince them that the Jersey Shore quality of life makes it a good place to build a career.

He said he hopes to have two new doctors at work in the area by next year.

Contact Bill Barlow:

609-272-7290

bbarlow@pressofac.com

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