Mississippi Delta loses its only neonatal intensive care unit

Published 8:00 am Wednesday, August 24, 2022

By Will Stribling

Mississippi Today 

A Greenville hospital closed its neonatal intensive care unit in July after the unit reported losses of $1 million a year.

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Now, there is no longer a NICU in the Mississippi Delta.

Delta Health-The Medical Center, which is currently operating with only one medical floor, also closed its cardiac rehabilitation department. It and the NICU are “non-revenue producing ventures,” said interim CEO Iris Yeldell-Stacker in an Aug. 1 presentation to the Washington County Board of Supervisors.

Hospital officials told Mississippi Today that operating the NICU created annual losses for the hospital of $1 million. An average of 150 newborns have been placed in the NICU each year since 2019.

The hospital serves four Delta counties: Bolivar, Coahoma, Sunflower and Washington – all counties with poverty levels over 30%, well above both the state and national average.

“Infants that require care in the NICU will be transferred, as they always have been,” Amy Walker, chief nursing officer at Delta Health System, said. “This will likely cause a hardship on the families of the infant as they will have to travel to Jackson to be with their baby for what could be a lengthy hospital stay. We will still provide a well baby nursery for babies delivered here, and can provide things like IV fluids and limited antibiotic therapy for those babies.”

The NICU’s closure shocked many employees who saw it as a valuable asset, said an employee who asked to remain anonymous in the story for fear of retribution from the hospital. The employee said the hope for the unit was to break even, not turn a profit, but that this proved impossible due to a lower than expected number of transfers from surrounding communities.

The NICU was classified as a level II, meaning it could provide some intensive care for sick and premature infants, such as those who required respirator support or those who were born experiencing drug withdrawals. The hospital transferred an average of 16 babies per year to Children’s of Mississippi’s level IV NICU, the only unit in the state with this designation.

Now, all babies born in the Delta that require NICU care will be sent to Children’s of Mississippi in Jackson or go out of state.

The hospital’s NICU was being managed by Children’s of Mississippi when it closed. University of Mississippi Medical Center officials said they had no comment for the story. They also declined Mississippi Today’s request to interview the doctors and nurses who managed the unit.

Further operational changes are likely in Delta Health System’s future because of its dire financial state. The entire system has a current income of negative $13.2 million for 2022,  according to Yeldell-Stacker. Its Greenville hospital is responsible for $334,000 of these losses, while the rest were attributed to Delta Health System’s other medical centers and groups.

Yeldell-Stacker cited increased operating costs, mostly coming from an increase in contact labor. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the hospital paid nurses between $40 and $55 per hour, whereas contact nurses cost between $155 to $175 per hour.

The hospital also received a $14 million loan from Medicare early in the pandemic, which Yeldell-Stacker said they are paying back to the tune of $1 million per month, further dragging down its  finances.