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Healthcare Business News

ACLU-backed merger report says Catholic systems' growth threatens women's access to care

By Beth Kutscher
Posted: December 18, 2013 - 4:15 pm ET

Catholic health systems are growing in size, and as the number of religiously affiliated hospitals increases, women's access to care is threatened, according to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union and MergerWatch.

MergerWatch, a group critical of religious interference in healthcare, partnered with the ACLU to update its 2002 “No Strings Attached” study. The new report, “Miscarriage of Medicine,” also comes just weeks after the ACLU sued the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on behalf of a Michigan woman, arguing that her miscarriage at 18 weeks wasn't treated to medical standards.

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There were 381 Catholic hospitals in the U.S. in 2011, a 16.1% increase since 2001, the report found. Moreover, as the total number of hospitals has shrunk, Catholic facilities composed 10.1% of hospitals, compared with 8.2% a decade earlier.

Yet the largest increase in facilities was among investor-owned chains, which expanded their hospital holdings by 46%, to 964 from 660. At the end of the same period, there were 31% fewer public hospitals; 41% fewer not-for-profits with other religious affiliations; and 12% fewer secular not-for-profits.

The report also found that Catholic institutions were no more likely to provide charity care than other hospitals. The level of charity care at Catholic hospitals was about 2.8% of revenue compared with 2.9% for hospitals overall. At the same time, the groups argued, Catholic facilities restrict access to women's health services, including contraception, sterilization and infertility treatments.

The Catholic Health Association said it was still reading through the report and declined to comment at deadline.

On Dec. 2, the ACLU sued the Bishops conference on behalf Tamesha Means, whose water broke when she was 18 weeks pregnant, before the point of viability. Means twice tried to seek care at a local Catholic hospital but was sent home, according to the complaint. By her third attempt, an infection had set in, but even then hospital workers allegedly declined to treat her until her body began to deliver on its own.

In a statement responding to that suit, the CHA countered that “Catholic hospitals in the United States have a stellar history of caring for mothers and infants.”

The association added that hospitals receive independent accreditation and licensing and must meet “robust standards” of care. “Premature rupture of membranes is one of the most stressful obstetrical events. … This is not a simple clinical situation that you 'take care of' and then move on. Anyone who has ever cared for these parents knows that this will always be the child they lost.”

Follow Beth Kutscher on Twitter: @MHbkutscher

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