Catholic-secular hospital partnerships complicate access to care

As the Catholic Health Association and the Obama administration make progress on the contraceptive coverage controversy, a surge of proposed and completed mergers of Catholic and secular healthcare systems is muddying the waters even further.

More secular hospitals are joining forces with Catholic counterparts due to financial reasons, but the move is raising the likelihood that healthcare administrators can go where politicians cannot and restrict access to abortion, The New York Times reported.

If all proposed religious and secular mergers finalize, nearly half of the hospital beds in Washington would be run by Catholic health systems and would follow religious healthcare directives that ban elective abortions and end-of-life care, the article noted.

Catholic hospital leaders maintain that partnerships with secular facilities allow them to preserve access to care for millions of Americans in rural and suburban areas. However, critics of such partnerships say Catholic hospitals limit healthcare options because they deny certain reproductive services or end-of-life care, according to the NYT.

Facing a similar clash in Connecticut, Waterbury Hospital recently called off its proposed merger with St. Mary's Hospital, noting that objectives to comply with Catholic directives on birth control "were too many and too insurmountable," according to a FierceHealthcare special report on picking merger partners.

To avoid conflicts leading to failed Catholic and non-Catholic partnerships, Catholic Healthcare West last year ended its board's association with the Catholic church and changed its name to Dignity Health to help the system expand nationally.

However, the conflicts go beyond hospitals' reproductive and end-of-life policies and affect private, confidential advice from physicians, the NYT noted. Under a Catholic-secular partnership, religious directives require the professional-patient relationship always link to the Catholic identity of the healthcare institution.

While research has found more than 40 percent of patients want to discuss matters of faith with their doctors, a recent article published in The Atlantic showed patients respond negatively when they perceive a physician's religious beliefs are imposed on them in a way that disregards their own, FiercePracticeManagement previously reported.

To learn more:
- here's the NYT article
- read the Atlantic article