Growth of Catholic Hospitals Impacts Reproductive Health Care
Even as many Republican-ruled states push for sweeping abortion bans, some Democratic-ruled states are increasingly concerned that reproductive health care options are shrinking due to the expansion of Catholic hospital networks.
These are states like Oregon, Washington, California, and Connecticut, where abortion will remain legal despite the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade.
The concerns in these blue states relate to services such as contraception, sterilization and certain procedures for treating pregnancy-related emergencies. These services are widely available in secular hospitals but generally prohibited, along with abortion, in Catholic facilities under guidelines established by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Differing perspectives on these services can clash when a Catholic hospital system seeks to acquire or merge with a nonsectarian hospital, as is currently the case in Connecticut. State officials are weighing a bid by Catholic company Covenant Health to merge with Day Kimball Healthcare, a financially-struggling hospital and independent health-care system based in the town of Putnam.
“We need to make sure any new homeowner can provide a full range of care — including reproductive health care, family planning, gender-affirming care, and end-of-life care,” Connecticut’s attorney general said. , William Tong, a Democrat.
Lois Utley, an expert in tracking hospital mergers, said her organization, Community Catalyst, has identified more than 20 municipalities in blue or purple states where the only acute care hospitals are Catholic.
“We’re definitely going backwards in terms of overall reproductive health,” Utley said. “Catholic systems support many doctor’s offices, urgent care centers, outpatient centers, and patients seeking contraception will not be able to obtain it if their doctor is now part of that system.”
According to the Catholic Health Association, there are 654 Catholic hospitals in the United States, including 299 with obstetric services. The CHA says that more than one in seven hospitalized patients in the United States are cared for in a Catholic facility.
CHA President Sister Mary Haddad said the hospitals provide a wide range of prenatal, obstetric and postnatal services while assisting about 500,000 births a year.
“This commitment is rooted in our respect for life, from conception to natural death,” Haddad said via email. “As a result, Catholic hospitals do not offer elective abortions.”
Protocols are different for serious emergencies when the mother “suffers from an urgent and life-threatening condition during pregnancy,” Haddad said. “Catholic Health clinicians provide all medically indicated treatments, even if they pose a threat to the unborn child.”
This approach is now reflected in several states that impose bans that only allow abortions to save a mother’s life. There are concerns that doctors governed by such prohibitions — whether by state law or Catholic directive — could endanger the health of a pregnant woman by refusing treatment while she is begins to show the adverse effects of a pregnancy-related problem.
In California, Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener is among those cautiously watching the proliferation of Catholic health care providers, who operate 52 hospitals in his state.
The hospitals provide “superb care to many people, including low-income communities,” Wiener said. But they “absolutely deny people access to reproductive health care.”
“It is the bishop, not professional standards, who dictate who can receive what health care,” Wiener said. “That’s scary.”
Charles Camosy, professor of medical humanities at Creighton University School of Medicine, says critics of the mergers fail to recognize a major benefit of expanding Catholic health care.
“These mergers are happening because Catholic institutions are ready to tackle the really tough places where others have failed to make money,” he said. “We should focus on what these institutions are doing in a positive way – stepping into the gap where hardly anyone else wants to go, especially in rural areas.”
This argument resonates in mostly rural northeast Connecticut, where Day Kimball serves a population of about 125,000.
Kyle Kramer, CEO of Day Kimball, said the 104-bed hospital had been looking for a financial partner for more than seven years and would soon face “very serious problems” if forced to go it alone.
Regarding the proposed merger, he said, “Change is always difficult.
However, he said Day Kimball would remain committed to comprehensive care if the merger goes through, seeking to educate patients about all options in areas such as contraception, miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies.
As for abortions, Kramer said Day Kimball never performed them for the sole purpose of terminating a pregnancy and that he would continue that policy if he partnered with Covenant.
Despite these assurances, some residents fear that the only hospital in the area will become Catholic property. Some opponents of the merger demonstrated outside the hospital last Monday.
Sue Grant Nash, a retired social worker at Day Kimball Hospice, described herself as religious but said people’s values should not be imposed on others.
“The very important articles of faith that Catholics may have, and which I fully respect, should not affect the quality of health care offered to the public,” she said.
There have been similar developments in other states.
—In Washington, Democratic state Senator Emily Randall plans to reintroduce a bill that would empower the attorney general to block hospital mergers and acquisitions if they jeopardize “the continued existence of accessible and affordable, including reproductive health care”. Governor Jay Inslee says he is in favor of such a measure.
The state has already passed a bill that prohibits religious hospitals in the state from restricting health care providers from providing medically necessary care to hasten miscarriages or terminate nonviable pregnancies, such as pregnancies ectopic. Under the new law, patients can sue a hospital if they are denied such care, and providers can also sue if they are disciplined for providing such care.
—In Oregon, the state has the new power to prohibit religious hospitals from acquiring or merging with another health care entity if it means access to abortion and other reproductive services would be reduced. A law that took effect March 1 requires state approval for mergers and acquisitions of significant health care entities.
The law also allows the state to consider end-of-life options allowed by hospitals seeking to establish a footprint or expand in Oregon, which in 1994 became the first state to legalize medical assistance in die.
Crary reported from New York. Rachel La Corte, Associated Press reporter in Olympia, Washington; Andrew Selsky in Salem, Oregon, and Adam Beam in Sacramento, California, contributed.
Associated Press religious coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.
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