Healthcare Business News

Providence agrees to lift Catholic restrictions at new clinic

By Harris Meyer
Posted: August 29, 2014 - 4:30 pm ET

Responding to pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union, Providence Health & Services has agreed to modify the provisions of a partnership agreement with Washington State University to lift restrictions on healthcare services that are contrary to Catholic religious doctrine at a new teaching clinic in Spokane.

The ACLU of Washington had urged the WSU Board of Regents not to allow Catholic religious policy to limit services offered at the new teaching clinic that will be collaboration between the public university, Catholic-affiliated Providence Health & Services and Empire Health Foundation.

The issue follows a similar recent controversy over an agreement between the public University of Washington and PeaceHealth that would link UW Medicine with the Catholic-affiliated health system. A group of UW medical trainees asked university leaders in June to ensure that PeaceHealth's Catholic healthcare policies would not limit their healthcare services and training.

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In a letter to the regents Aug. 27 (PDF), the ACLU asked that the WSU board ensure that healthcare and medical training at the Spokane Teaching Health Center not be restricted by religious doctrine, or else withdraw from the partnership. The ACLU pointed to language in the health center's bylaws stating that the center “shall not undertake any activity, nor shall it perform or permit any medical procedure, that offends the moral or ethical values or directives of Providence, including but not limited to, the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services.”

The directives, issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, prohibit contraceptive services, tubal ligations and other sterilization procedures; fertility treatments; advance directives that are contrary to Catholic doctrine; and physician-assisted suicide, which is legal for terminally ill patients in Washington under that state's Death with Dignity Act. The Catholic policies also limit clinicians' discretion in inserting or removing feeding and hydration tubes in severely ill patients.

But Colleen Wadden, a Providence spokeswoman, said the scope of services provided by the center will not be limited by the Catholic directives. The new center “is a secular (nonreligious) organization and is not bound by the Ethical and Religious Directives,” she told Modern Healthcare Friday. “Providence is working with its consortium partners—WSU and (Empire)—to review the governing documents to ensure that they do not limit the scope of services” provided by the center or other secular consortium partners, including the future University District Health Clinic.

“To help address any confusion surrounding this issue, the consortium partners will modify the provisions in the Spokane Teaching Health Center's governing documents to reflect that understanding,” Wadden added.

Doug Honig, an ACLU spokesman, said Providence's statement is “a pleasing development.” But he added that under the current bylaws, the Spokane Teaching Health Center “clearly isn't secular.” Those bylaws “bind its operations to the Ethical and Religious Directives of the Catholic Church. The ACLU is strongly supportive of Providence, WSU and Empire reviewing and revising the governing documents to ensure that (the center) becomes a secular entity that does not restrict health services on the basis of religious doctrine.” The ACLU would consider its legal options if WSU doesn't strip out the religious restrictions, he added.

The Spokane Teaching Health Center, scheduled to open in 2016, is intended to provide care to low-income patients. It will be supported by $900,000 in federal funding for six medical residency positions made available through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

In its letter to the WSU regents, the ACLU noted that WSU is subject to Washington's constitutional and statutory requirements barring state support of religious practice, protecting patients' rights, and supporting reproductive and end-of-life care.

WSU did not provide comment for this article.

Follow Harris Meyer on Twitter: @MHHmeyer

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