ACLU concerned 'religious dogma' will compromise health care access

SEATTLE -- The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington has asked Gov. Jay Inslee to stall any hospital transactions out of concern that mergers with religious organizations could compromise patients' access to health services.

The ACLU, along with 10 other civil rights and health care advocacy organizations, sent Inslee a letter requesting he enact a six-month moratorium on any decision by the State Department of Health on proposed or pending applications related to hospital ownership, operation, or management.

"Our concern is that when secular hospitals merge with religious corporations the result is that the health care facility will have to follow the religious dogma," Doug Honig, spokesperson for the ACLU, told KOMO Newsradio. "That can limit the access of patients to medically appropriate and lawful procedures, specifically end-of-life care, reproductive health care and it can affect care for lesbian, gay and transsexual people."

The organizations asked Inslee to conduct a community health needs assessment to evaluate the impact of mergers with religious health care corporations on patients' ability to access medically appropriate health care services.

"This would give a chance for state leadership to get more information about pending transactions, learn more about how they would affect health care access in Washington state and get some real concrete data on this," Honig said.

Inslee's spokesperson David Postman said the governor has not seen the ACLU's letter yet, his staff is reviewing it.

"He is certainly aware of this issue and concerned about what these mergers could mean for women's health care coverage," Postman said.

The governor recently spoke with UW Medical Center officials about the hospitals plan to affiliate with the Catholic health care system PeaceHealth.

"University of Washington officials assured him that the arrangement will not change UW Medical governance or dictate what services UW provides or covers," Postman said. "Nonetheless, the governor has concerns and is open to hearing ideas on how best to be sure that women's health care is protected."

According to MergerWatch, the number of hospital beds at religiously-affiliated hospitals in Washington has increased from 26 percent in 2010 to 40 percent today. The ACLU reports that if all pending hospital mergers go through that figure will rise to 45 percent before the year's end.

Honig said these mergers are driven by national health care reform and a push for cost saving in hospitals.

"We're not opposed to hospital consolidations and mergers at all," he said. "What we do want is for state leadership to get involved to make sure that as we have consolidations people's access to lawful procedures and medically appropriate care is not compromised."