Revised Catholic rule eases process for hospital mergers, affiliations

A new ruling this week among Catholic bishops eases the process for mergers between the church and healthcare providers without compromising the former's positions on abortion, birth control, assisted suicide and direct sterilization.

The directive worries healthcare advocates as the number of Catholic-related hospitals continues to rise throughout the nation, according to the Washington Times.

"Catholic healthcare is huge, and it's growing," Sara Hutchinson Ratcliffe, domestic program director for Catholics for Choice, told the publication. "The new directives, the provisions of healthcare, are about bishops getting special rules to be able to run what is a very large part of the healthcare system."

The church currently bans certain services, such as reproductive health options, end-of-life treatment, HIV therapy and LGBT needs  Although the bishops only updated the section on mergers and partnership, Ratcliffe says it provides church leaders with an additional opportunity to impose their healthcare rules as they continue to merge with providers.

A study by the American Civil Liberties Union and MergerWatch last year found that between 2001 and 2011, the number of Catholic-sponsored or -affiliated acute care hospitals increased by16 percent while all other types of non-profit hospitals  and publicly owned hospitals declined in numbers. Only for-profit hospitals grew faster than Catholic facilities.

"Óne of the most significant findings of our analysis was the growth in size of Catholic-sponsored health systems. Indeed, 10 of the top 25 top health systems in the United States are Catholic," the report said. "In other words, these Catholic health systems are increasingly big business, with great power in local, regional, and national markets. They are also increasingly poised to influence healthcare policy."

The report takes an in-depth look at the impact of the Catholic healthcare restrictions at Sierra Vista Regional Health Center in southeastern Arizona, Mercy Health Partners in Michigan, a member of Trinity Health and the rising marketplace dominance of Catholic-sponsored systems in Washington State.

The new Catholic directive "can't be good news for anyone concerned about the state of women's healthcare," wrote Los Angeles Times columnist Michael HIltzik on Wednesday.,

As more Catholic health systems attempt to acquire secular hospitals, he said, "the threat to the unfettered practice of medicine will increase. It's up to public officials to monitor this trend, and stop it in its tracks."

To learn more:
- read the Washington Times article
- here's Hiltzik's column
- check out the study (.pdf)