Women who live in Blanding won't have to commute to Monticello to deliver their babies after the San Juan Hospital opens a birthing center this month in the southeastern Utah town.

Officials say the new $450,000 facility will provide more accessible obstetrical service to southern San Juan County residents. That's crucial in a county where the infant mortality rate approaches that of a Central American nation such as Costa Rica.The hospital is located in Monticello, and operates a nursing home and emergency-care facility in Blanding. Pregnant women are forced to commute 22 miles for delivery.

Because of that distance, Dr. L. Val Jones, the only doctor in Blanding and half of the small rural hospital's staff of physicians, is forced to stay overnight at the hospital about three nights a week.

The new facility is part of a plan to ease the burden on the county's two doctors. Both Jones and Monticello physician Dr. Steven Warren feel overloaded and say without support they may have to shut down their practices.

So the hospital placed an ad in Salt Lake papers offering a $10,000 reward to anyone who recommends a physician willing to practice in Monticello or Blanding. In three weeks, about 60 callers have offered names. Officials say the bounty offer generated a solid candidate pool of about 12 to 15 physicians.

One Salt Lake TV news story included hospital administrator Larry Putnam's home and office phone numbers. Fifteen minutes after the story aired, Putnam received seven calls at home, and another 20 were placed to the hospital.

Putnam hopes the new birthing facility will encourage an obstetrician to move in. Blanding residents supported construction by raising $100,000. The rest of the money came by a grant of the state Division of Community Development, from a fund generated through mineral royalties on oil, gas and mines.

Jones and Warren each deliver more than 100 babies a year.

According to Putnam, the county claims a double distinction - high fertility rates as well as high infant mortality rates.

The U.S. fertility rate is 66.1 babies per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44. the Utah rate is 91.8 births per 1,000 women, while in San Juan County it soars to 106.2 births.

The nation averages about 10 infant deaths per 1,000 live births. That compares to about eight infant deaths per 1,000 live births in Utah. About 17.4 babies die per 1,000 live births in San Juan County.

Putnam said some women who live on the Navajo Indian Reservation have received little medical service in the past. "In the past, we've had moms appearing in the emergency room at nine months (who have had) absolutely no prenatal care. It scares the docs a lot," he said.

"We do not do a good job, and have not in the past, of serving the Navajo population in the southern end of the county."