Rural clinic flatlines

Oroville Hospital suddenly shuts down the Berry Creek Health Center

LAST DAYS: <br>Licensed Vocational Nurse Betty Baltzley has worked at the Berry Creek Health Center almost since it opened more than 20 years ago. She’ll be out of a job next week, when the clinic closes.

Licensed Vocational Nurse Betty Baltzley has worked at the Berry Creek Health Center almost since it opened more than 20 years ago. She’ll be out of a job next week, when the clinic closes.

Photo by Tom Angel

Coming soon: Oroville Hospital started construction on a new $10 million medical offices building earlier this year. The project is privately financed by local doctors and investors including Robert Wentz, the hospital’s chief administrator.

More than a simple health clinic, the Berry Creek Health Center has served as much a community center and gathering place as it has a doctor’s office.

Those days, though, are apparently gone come July 15.

Several residents of the tiny foothill town of Berry Creek—population 3,000—gathered outside the clapboard clinic Tuesday morning to commiserate about the loss of their town’s only health care facility. The closure by Oroville Hospital, which has run the clinic the past nine years, was sudden, to say the least. Betty Baltzley, an LVN who’s worked at the clinic for 21 years, got the news when she returned to work Monday morning from a vacation.

“It was just a call to say, ‘That’s it, we’re shutting down,'” Baltzley said. “No one expected it.”

Baltzley, who seemed near tears when discussing the closure by phone Monday afternoon, was more composed Tuesday morning as she scheduled appointments for the rest of the week. Clinic staff, she said, will remain in the office “until they come and lock us out.”

She expects that will be soon, though, as hospital officials appear to want to close up permanently by July 15. That leaves Baltzley unemployed next week, but she said she planned to retire in October anyway. She’s not worried about herself, but said she’s “scared to death” for the dozens of elderly and indigent patients who’ve depended on the general practice facility for everything from routine gynecological care to emergency asthma breathing treatments to suture removal.

“We’re just the old family doctor up here,” Baltzley said. “I would step aside right now if it meant that this place would stay open, because there’s a lot of people up here who are just going to be left.”

The federal government opened the Berry Creek clinic and another in Feather Falls in 1981 as part of the Rural Health Care Project. Oroville Hospital took over operations of both clinics in 1993, but soon closed the one in Feather Falls. Since then, Baltzley acknowledges, the clinic has seen patients on a “feast or famine” basis.

“Some days, we see 10 patients all day, some days we see 25 patients just in the morning,” Baltzley said. “It just depends on the time of year.”

Clinic Director Holly Edwards was tight-lipped about the closure, and would say only that “the hospital has decided to temporarily suspend operations. … Perhaps it will open up again. That’s all I’m permitted to say about it.” Oroville Hospital Chief Executive Officer Robert Wentz said that the hospital will apply to the federal government to give the clinic status as a rural health care facility, a designation that would pour federal funds into its operations. If the designation is approved, he said, the clinic might re-open. At this point, though, that’s still pretty iffy.

The clinic has been losing money for years, Wentz said.

“Things are tightening up in health care all over,” he said. “We just don’t have the option anymore to subsidize these kinds of satellite clinics.” To many Berry Creek residents, the clinic has offered more than health care. It’s been a community center as well as a place to socialize.

“Every time I come here, there’s someone I know,” said resident Risa Youngblood, who suffers from fibromyalgia and asthma. “It’s where people go to find out what’s going on, for referrals to social service groups or help for whatever they need.”

Plus, she said, dozens of Berry Creek residents without cars depend on their close proximity to the clinic for everyday health needs. She related the story of her elderly neighbors, who don’t drive and depend on her to ferry them to the clinic regularly.

“There’s not a lot of money up here, but there’s a lot of people who really depend on this place for just about everything,” she said. “I still can’t believe they’re closing it like this, so fast.”

Neither can Molly Smith, Berry Creek’s school nurse. The clinic has been especially useful to parents of young children, she said, as it provides an easy place to get well-child checkups and vaccinations. It’s also ideal for her because it provides ready access to records of immunizations for kids entering school.

Clinic patients will be referred to Oroville Hospital for future health care needs and refills for prescriptions, Baltzley said.