United States (ProPublica) – by Nina Martin
Over the past few years, Washington state’s liberal voters have been on quite a roll. Same-sex marriage? Approved. Assisted suicide? Check. Legalized pot? That too. Strong abortion protections? Those have been in place for decades.
Now, though, the state finds itself in the middle of a trend that hardly anyone there ever saw coming: a wave of mergers and alliances between Catholic hospital chains and secular, taxpayer-supported community hospitals. By the end of this year, the ACLU estimates, nearly half of Washington’s hospital beds could be under Catholic influence or outright control.
Many of the deals have been reached in near secrecy, with minimal scrutiny by regulators. Virtually all involve providers in Western Washington, which voted heavily for same-sex marriage last November and the Death with Dignity Act in 2008. The cultural divide between the region’s residents (Seattle recently edged out San Francisco as the area with the largest proportion of gay couples) and the Catholic Church (whose local archbishop led the effort against marriage equality and is overseeing a Vatican crackdown on independent-minded American nuns) couldn’t be wider. And yet more and more hospitals there — sustained by taxpayers, funded by Medicare, Medicaid, and other government subsidies — could be bound by church restrictions on birth control, sterilization and abortion, fertility treatments, genetic testing, and assisted suicide.
In affected communities, the news is not going over well.
“It’s the perfect storm here,” said Kathy Reim, president of Skagit PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) north of Seattle, where four area hospitals have been in merger talks this year. “We are the only state that has all these rights and privileges available to our citizens. Yet many of our hospital beds are being managed by a system that, for the most part, cannot and will not honor these rights and laws.”
Meanwhile, the deals just keep coming. Earlier this month, hospital commissioners approved a letter of intent between Skagit Valley Hospital and PeaceHealth, a Catholic enterprise that runs nine medical centers and dozens of clinics in three states. The week before, Franciscan Health System (which already has six hospitals in the region) said it would affiliate with an acute-care facility in the sprawling suburbs south of Seattle. In mid- September, UW Medicine, which includes the University of Washington’s teaching centers, signed a “strategic collaboration” with PeaceHealth to provide advanced specialized in-patient care.
In all, Washington has seen at least 10 completed or proposed Catholic-secular affiliations in the past three years, more than anywhere else in the country, says Sheila Reynertson of MergerWatch, a New York-based nonprofit group that tracks hospital consolidations. Three of the state’s five largest health-care systems are Catholic.
– Provided by ProPublica.org