Catholic healthcare group's expansion in Colorado triggers dispute over abortion, contraceptive coverage
Healthcare ethics

Catholic healthcare group's expansion in Colorado triggers dispute over abortion, contraceptive coverage


A Catholic hospital group's acquisition of non-Catholic Denver-area hospitals has started a debate about the place of Catholic ethics in healthcare.

The Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth Health System is taking over three Exempla Healthcare facilities:  St. Joseph's Hospital in Denver, Lutheran Medical Center in Wheat Ridge, and Good Samaritan Medical Center in Lafayette, reports the Denver Post. The Sisters of Charity are paying $311 million to buy out the 50 percent stake of its partner in the hospitals, the Community First Foundation.

Catholic ethics forbids direct abortion and birth control, and are already in force at the Sisters of Charity-owned St. Joseph's Hospital.  These standards will be implemented in the other hospitals after their successful acquisition. 

Exempla Spokeswoman Kim Kobel says the two other hospitals to be acquired have performed an average of five abortions per year to preserve the life and the health of the mother.  Tubal ligations will also cease, and women seeking emergency contraception will be referred to other hospitals.  End of life care practices could also be affected by the change of ownership.

The ownership change must be approved by the state attorney general.  The attorney general's review will focus on whether the acquisition constitutes a "material change in purpose."  If the review concludes it does, further inquiry will determine if reasonable accommodations have been made for the affected community.

The Sisters of Charity and the Community First Foundation have argued that "more than adequate" access to the procedures exists elsewhere in the community.  But Exempla's board plans to write a letter stating that the transfer would cause a reduction of services. 

"These are very difficult issues," said Jeff Selberg, president and CEO of Exempla.

Exempla and the foundation are trying to find a third party to provide the "reproductive services" not allowed under the new standards of practice. 

Lois Uttley, director of the Merger Watch organization sometimes critical of such acquisitions, related that in New York, one hospital which switched over to a Catholic affiliation created an independently owned hospital in its parking lot to perform so-called reproductive services.

Kaiser Permanente, which directs its members to Exempla hospitals, is one of Colorado's largest insurers with about 480,000 insurance subscribers in the state.  Kaiser's regional president Donna Lynne said the insurer is working to provide alternative care, but stated "at this time we have not finalized a plan that we believe fully meets the needs of our members."

Bill Murray, chief executive of the Sisters of Charity, said the health system "values our relationship with Kaiser" and that the organization is working on plans to meet the insurer's needs. 

The Sisters of Charity's greater financial resources would help fund more advanced health facilities with an additional $300 million planned investment in the Exempla hospitals.  A prospective relocation of St. Joseph's hospital could cost $1 billion.

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