After more than 20 years of transporting critically ill babies from around the Intermountain Area to Utah hospitals, the University of Utah's Neonatal Transport Team will be grounded tonight at midnight.

Hospital administrators were advised by U. attorneys Thursday that the air ambulance team can stop transporting babies tonight at midnight.Beginning Saturday morning, neonatal transports will be handled by Primary Children's Medical Center, an Intermountain Health Care hospital, which for years has contracted with the U.'s team to transport babies. That contract expired at midnight Oct. 31.

"Primary Children's Medical Center made a business decision to not renew that contract," Dr. William Gay, U. vice president of health sciences, said Thursday night. "Facing the loss of 85 percent of its (the team's) business, the University Hospital decided we could no longer legitimately support the employment of 12 flight nurses to continue that operation."

AirMed, the U.'s patient transport system, will still continue to transport adults, all accident victims and other patients as needed. A lot of AirMed's business will continue to be transporting high-risk pregnant women to the U. Hospital to have their babies.

The U.'s neonatal team transports about 650 babies a year, said Dr. Larry Jung, team doctor. But, 85 percent of the babies transported by the team have been taken to Primary.

"It's a fact of life. It has been that way for some time," Gay said.

Primary Children's and the U. had been hammering out a proposed agreement that would have allowed the nurses to be employed by the U.'s department of medicine and yet be compensated through that department by Primary Children's. The U.'s legal counsel nixed the agreement Thursday, said John Dwan, director of community relations for the U.'s Health Sciences Center.

"It was axed because it was decided there was no way we could legally do it. Possible antitrust violations are foremost on everybody's mind," Dwan said. "We are trying to be clean and stay away from it (an antitrust violation) to the greatest extent possible. We are trying to avoid the very appearance of evil."

A transport nurse, who asked not to be identified, said an investigator for the Utah attorney general's Fair Business Enforcement unit contacted a few nurses Thursday night about the agreement. She didn't wish to discuss the questions the investigator asked.

What does the dissolution of the U.'s Neonatal Transport Team mean to its 12 members? Gay said the nurses will be offered other employment at the U. Hospital in various areas. "Other options may be available to them, including but not necessarily exclusive of the opportunity to join the neonatal flight team that will be operated by Primary Children's Medical Center."

Jung and chief flight nurse Terry Hardman each expressed sadness at the dissolution of the U. team, which has built a nationwide reputation that spanned two decades.

"You dedicate your life to a process like that, and it's hard to give it up," Hardman said.

The nurses on the team must decide by Thursday afternoon whether they will go to work for the Primary Children's team or stay at the U., Jung said.

The dissolution of the team began 11/2 months ago when area neonatologists proposed mingling the U. neonatal team with Primary Children's pediatric transport team.

The U. tried to work out a contract with Primary Children's so team members could work at Primary Children's but be paid by the U., and hence not lose their years of accrued benefits at the U., Dwan said.

Jung expects to be asked to direct the Primary Children's team. "I start over," he said. "We reconstruct another transport team."

Is Primary ready to start up with a team by Saturday?

Primary Children's spokesman Howard G. Noel would only say, "We are negotiating with various neonatal transport teams as Primary Children's Medical Center. We intend to provide the service for our patients throughout our service area."

"Arrangements will be made. Babies aren't going to go without care," Hardman said.