BAD MEDICINE: When Catholic and Non-Catholic Hospitals Merge, Women's Health Care Services Often Get Excommunicated

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When Catholic And Non-Catholic Hospitals Merge, Women's Health Care Services Often Get Excommunicated

When residents of Ulster and Dutchess Counties in southeastern New York began to hear rumors of a proposed merger between three local hospitals in late 1996, the news at first seemed non-controversial.

In this age of medicine as a big business, the proposal was certainly not unusual; hospitals are merging all over the country. But it soon became apparent that what seemed at first to be purely a business deal could have far-reaching implications for health care in the Hudson Valley due to the nature of one of the hospitals involved.

Benedictine Hospital is a Roman Catholic institution in Kingston run by the Benedictine Sisters, a New Jersey-based order of nuns. The two other facilities, Kingston Hospital and the tiny Northern Dutchess Hospital in nearby Rhinebeck, are non-sectarian. Yet the proposed merger called for imposing a series of restrictive Catholic health care directives on all three facilities.

In the case of Kingston Hospital and Northern Dutchess Hospital, that would mean an end to elective abortions, distribution of contraceptives and sterilizing operations such as tubal ligations and vasectomies as well as adaption of Catholic policies dealing with end-of-life issues for the terminally ill.

As word of the merger plan continued to spread, the controversy escalated. Soon bright red, octagonal signs reading, "NO RELIGIOUS HOSPITAL MERGER" were springing up on local lawns. Activist Caryl Towner helped form an opposition group called Preserve Medical Secularity. One rally attracted more than 800 participants, and area residents packed public meetings to ask questions and express concerns.

"When this first hit the newspaper, it was presented as a done deal," said Willa Freiband, director of public affairs for the Mid-Hudson Valley Planned Parenthood, who helped organize the opposition. "There was no opportunity for the community to even voice their opposition. As we predicted, there was vehement opposition to any religious doctrine superseding patients' rights. By trying to force it, the hospitals probably were dooming their own plans."

It took a year and a half, but determined community resistance, effective organizing and the threat of an anti-trust lawsuit finally sunk the merger plans. All three hospitals began looking at other options. Northern Dutchess has already merged with another non-sectarian facility.

What happened in Ulster and Dutchess Counties is far from unique. In fact, similar controversies are replaying around the country as hospital mergers become more and more common. But in many cases, the outcome is different. The mergers go through, and non-sectarian hospitals find themselves saddled with Roman Catholic doctrines. Critics say local residents' health care, especially women's care, is suffering as a result.

Late last year, for example, financially troubled Massapequa General Hospital on Long Island, N.Y., entered into an agreement with Catholic Health Services that essentially made the Catholic group its landlord. The hospital then announced it would no longer perform abortions or tubal ligations.

"They agreed to disband these services," Donna O'Brien, senior vice president for Catholic Health Services, told Newsday. "As the landlord, we required they would have to follow the ethical directives of the Catholic Church."

Why is this issue suddenly capturing headlines now? Primarily it's because of merger-mania. Catholics for a Free Choice reports that since 1995, 105 mergers have occurred between Catholic and public or non-sectarian private hospitals nationwide, In at least half of those cases, reproductive health services were either dropped entirely or severely limited. CFC reports that there are now 91 counties in the nation where a Catholic hospital is the sole provider of health care, and 95 percent of those counties have a population where Catholics are in the minority. …