Rochelle Chee and her son, Theodore. (Photo: Courtesy of Rochelle Chee)

For months, Rochelle Chee diligently went to the Phoenix Indian Medical Center for prenatal checkups.

She knew a midwife and other staff there well and felt confident in the idea of going to the facility to deliver her first baby, who was growing big, in the 90th percentile for his gestational age.

That’s why the Navajo woman was shocked when, at 40 weeks pregnant, she learned the hospital had shut down its obstetrics services with no prior notice.

“I was stressed the whole time as I have been seeing PIMC throughout my whole pregnancy and last minute, I had to go elsewhere,” said Chee, 30. “My baby and I felt abandoned.”

The sudden closure of the Phoenix Indian Medical Center obstetrics, or OB-GYN, services on Aug. 26 has left dozens of expectant moms like Chee scrambling to seek birthing services elsewhere — and some facing unexpected, steep costs. Some say they’ve received conflicting explanations and unclear guidance on what to do next.

The federal Indian Health Service said in an email Friday to Indian Country Today that the closure is temporary and related to “facility infrastructure, equipment and challenges with staffing.” It did not provide a reopening date. 

“PIMC is working to resume obstetrical services when they can be provided in a safe environment,” the statement read.

The hospital continues to provide prenatal and gynecologist specialty care, and facilitate care for patients near term, the agency said. 

“Patient safety is the highest priority for the Indian Health Service.” It did not answer questions about how it’s advising expectant mothers who rely on its birthing services.

‘Unsafe conditions’

The Phoenix Indian Medical Center, near downtown, provides health care and community health services to more than 140,000 people from the greater Phoenix area. “The tribal identity of eligible beneficiaries receiving care at PIMC is representative of 67 percent of the 573 federally recognized tribes,” its website says.

The hospital operates under the Indian Health Service umbrella, providing care to tribal citizens under a federal obligation to Native people.

It has offered prenatal and birthing services for decades.

The Phoenix Indian Medical Center went weeks without publicly announcing the closure and referred all questions to the Indian Health Service, which did not provide details on how many patients were affected.

However, a source familiar with the hospital’s inner workings said nearly 200 patients have been referred out in recent weeks. The person was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke to Indian Country Today only on condition of anonymity.

The decision to close the obstetrics services was abrupt and made by the PIMC Governing Board in response to an internal review that recommended closure due to “unsafe conditions,” the source said.

In its statement, the Indian Health Services noted aging facilities and said its Phoenix area office has started a master planning