TOWANDA - As of this fall, the delivery of babies will permanently cease at Memorial Hospital in Towanda.

The hospital plans to close its Maternity Center on Sept. 30, because there are no longer enough babies being born at the hospital, according to a press release issued by the hospital on Monday.

The number of babies being delivered at the hospital, which now stands at fewer than 200 a year, is not high enough to support the operation of the Maternity Center, officials at the hospital said.

The hospital's board of trustees voted on June 27 to close the Maternity Center as a step toward ensuring the hospital's long-term financial health, the press release said.

The closure of the Maternity Center had been recommended by the hospital's administration, the release said.

"It is with great regret that we have to end such a wonderful and long-standing service (the Maternity Center)," said Gary A. Baker, Memorial Hospital president and CEO. "Unfortunately, it really comes down to the numbers."

A decline in the number of babies delivered at the hospital has occurred over the last decade, Baker said.

Around 2005, for example, over 300 babies a year were being delivered at the hospital, he said.

Many thousands of babies have been delivered at the hospital since the present hospital building opened in 1959, he said.

"We understand that this decision to close the Maternity Center affects many people's lives. However, this extremely difficult decision was necessary," Baker said. "This is not a decision that we took lightly."

Memorial Hospital is hardly alone in ceasing to deliver babies.

Since 2000, 43 hospitals in Pennsylvania have discontinued delivering babies, Baker said.

According to the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania (HAP), Memorial Hospital is one of many hospitals in Pennsylvania forced to discontinue delivering babies because of the combination of declining birth numbers and difficulty in recruiting physicians, Baker said.

Baker attributed the decline in the number of births at Memorial Hospital to a drop in the number of doctors who deliver babies at the hospital. He said there has been a difficulty in recruiting such physicians.

Currently, there are three doctors working at the hospital who deliver babies, he said.

"I think there were six (doctors who delivered babies at the hospital) up until 2005, he said.

"We anticipate providing complete obstetrics care and delivering babies right up to September 30, 2013," Baker said.

The public will still be able to get pre-natal care in the local community, Baker said.

Pre-natal care, as well as post-partum care, "will still be available sufficiently" in the Towanda area, Baker said. "It's just the delivery of babies" that will cease at Memorial Hospital, he said.

The closure of Memorial Hospital's Maternity Center will not affect the Nurse Family Partnership program that is based at the hospital, according to the hospital.

The Nurse Family Partnership program will remain in operation at the hospital, according to the hospital.

The Nurse Family Partnership is a free, voluntary program for first-time mothers that helps them to have a healthy pregnancy and raise a healthy baby, and coaches them on child development.

In an interview on Monday, Baker said that the outlook for the long-term financial viability of the hospital is "excellent."

However, the hospital's overall finances have been affected by reduced reimbursements from Medicare, and from people not paying the bills they owe to the hospital, he said.

And, as a result of the Affordable Care Act, the challenge that the hospital faces due to reduced Medicare reimbursements will continue to grow, said Bill Rohrbach, chief operating officer of the hospital.

Two of the doctors who deliver babies at Memorial Hospital, Larry McCullough and Timothy Powell, also perform gynecological surgery, Baker said.

"It is our objective that we continue to provide GYN (gynecological) surgery in our operating rooms," Baker said.

"Memorial Hospital has a long history of providing excellent care for patients," Baker said. "We look forward to building on that excellence to ensure the residents of Bradford and Sullivan Counties have access to quality care, close to home."

James Loewenstein can be reached at (570) 265-1633; or email: jloewenstein@thedailyreview.com.