Catholic-secular hospital mergers may restrict services

A recent wave of mergers and partnerships between secular and Catholic hospitals in Washington state raises questions about care delivery, ProPublica reports.

The American Civil Liberties Union estimates nearly half of hospital beds could be "under Catholic influence or outright control." In the past three years, the state has seen a total of 10 proposed or completed affiliations between Catholic and secular institutions, the article states. These mergers could leave taxpayer-subsidized hospitals in the state subject to Catholic restrictions on assisted suicide, abortion, birth control and fertility treatments.

This month, Washington hospital commissioners approved a letter of intent between 137-bed Skagit Valley Hospital in Mt. Vernon and Catholic enterprise PeaceHealth, which runs nine medical centers in three states. The week before, Franciscan Health System, which already operates six hospitals in the area, announced an affiliation with an acute-care facility south of Seattle.

Catholic hospitals operate under the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (ERD), which ban abortion and sterilization procedures, emergency contraception for rape victims, in vitro fertilization, artificial insemination and surrogate pregnancy.

The ERDs allow individual dioceses some leeway, potentially allowing the secular halves of these partnerships to continue performing services contrary to church doctrine. For example, PeaceHealth "strongly respects the patient-physician relationship and decisions that are made jointly by physicians and patients in the best interests of those patients," spokesman Tim Strickland told ProPublica, and will allow secular affiliates to provide birth control or abortions to save a mother's life.

Swedish Health Services, however, stopped providing elective abortions within a week of its affiliation with Providence Health & Services, according to the article.

Last year, Waterbury Hospital in Waterbury, Conn., called off a similar partnership with St. Mary's Hospital over Catholic directives on birth control, according to a FierceHealthcare special report.

To learn more:
- here's the ProPublica article
- read the ERD (.pdf)