Hospital commissioners in Skagit County recently signed a letter stating their intention to hand over control of the county's United General Hospital to the Catholic healthcare organization, PeaceHealth, for the next 50 years.

Now, the ACLU of Washington is politely warning commissioners to reconsider their current plan, which gives PeaceHealth "full discretion to determine the scope of services" at United General, before the 50-year lease agreement is finalized. "The Hospital District must insist that, in order to receive funds, PeaceHealth or other heath care facilities provide access to contraceptive services and abortion, and that their policies be based on medical ethics and state law, not religious doctrine," states the February 8 letter signed Kathleen Taylor, Executive Director of the ACLU of Washington. (A nearly identical letter was also sent to the Washington State Department of Health.)

If the hospital refuses to comply, the ACLU is "exploring all options," spokesman Doug Honig says, "including a lawsuit."

As I mention in this week's feature, 10 hospital mergers have been proposed (and/or finalized) in the last year in Washington between public and Catholic healthcare organizations, each of which could drastically impact women and terminal patients' access to their full range of healthcare options. The ACLU has now issued warning letters to public hospital commissioners in two counties—San Juan County and Skagit County—outlining the illegalities of moving forward with these mergers. What makes these PeaceHealth mergers particularly menacing is that PeaceHealth is also in talks to merge with a much larger (and more conservative) Catholic corporation, Franciscan Health System.*

More from the ACLU's February 8 letter to Skagit County hospital commissioners (.pdf):

We are deeply concerned that PeaceHealth's religiously-based policy of restricting access to reproductive and end-of-life healthcare services violates the Washington constitution and state law. Our concerns are further exacerbated by the likelihood of increased restrictions should a proposed merger between PeaceHealth and Franciscan Health System... go forward.

... As a government entity, the Skagit Public Health District No. 304 is bound by the Washington Constitution. The Washington Constitution provides that "no public money or property" shall be used to support "any religious establishment." (Article 1, Section II) By providing an annual subsidy to PeaceHealth and charging only nominal rent to lease United General Hospital and other public health facilities to PeaceHealth, the Hospital District is impermissably supporting the religious restrictions on reproductive and end-of-life services.

The letter goes on to state that the United General Hospital merger would violate the state's Reproductive Parity Act, which empowers every individual "with the fundamental right to choose or refuse birth control," and every woman the right to have an abortion.

Honig says the Skagit County hospital commissioners haven't yet responded to their letter.

*Franciscan is affiliated with Catholic Health Initiatives, which is widely considered to be the most strident and conservative Catholic healthcare group in the country (it's actually considered a direct arm of the Catholic church). CHI is so conservative that the governor of Kentucky blocked a proposed hospital merger in his state amidst fears CHI would choke out women's access to comprehensive reproductive healthcare. Let me repeat that: CHI is considered too conservative for Kentucky. And yet CHI's affiliation with Franciscan, and Franciscan's proposed merger with PeaceHealth, means that CHI could soon influence healthcare policies at PeaceHealth's nine NW hospitals and 73 medical centers.