A Roman Catholic hospital and a private not-for-profit facility in Fall River, Mass., are attempting to iron out, at long last, a set of religious wrinkles that has kept them from unifying efforts to deliver healthcare locally.
The boards of St. Anne's Health Care System, parent corporation of 178-bed St. Anne's Hospital, and Charlton Health System, parent of 332-bed Charlton Memorial Hospital, approved an agreement earlier this month that aims to bring the city's healthcare facilities under one not-for-profit parent corporation.
Frederic C. Dreyer Jr., president of both Charlton Memorial and the health system, emphasized that the talks were "very preliminary" and that the past 25 years are dotted with previous attempts to consolidate with St. Anne's. Mr. Dreyer has been with the hospital organization for 28 years.
In those past attempts, the negotiations have "run smack into what can be described in one word as `Catholicity,"' Mr. Dreyer said.
By that he means the ethical and religious directives of the Roman Catholic Church that prohibit medical procedures such as sterilizations.
Those principles, set at the Vatican level, are becoming principal obstacles to consolidations between secular and nonsecular facilities as healthcare evolves from systems of similar and scattered institutions to systems of diverse institutions organized at the local level.
But a "strong economic drive" to wring out duplication of services and manage healthcare costs is behind the resolve to try again, Mr. Dreyer said.
The affiliation part of the process "would be a natural," he said. The medical staff is much the same at both facilities, and there's a history of some cooperation on services. For example, pediatric services were consolidated at St. Anne's, obstetrics at Charlton.
But to clear the obstacle of Catholic doctrine, Charlton and its subsidiaries had to agree up front that they would not do anything inconsistent with the church's ethical and religious directives. At the same time, Charlton declared its "absolute commitment that we will not become a Catholic hospital or system," he said.
Ronald B. Goodspeed, M.D., Charlton's executive vice president and chief operating officer, said abortion wasn't an issue but other religious prohibitions were: the church's opposition to certain aspects of infertility treatment and its opposition to contraception, including sterilization.
Debora Spano, a spokeswoman for St. Anne's, said physicians or other providers in the community not associated with the proposed new parent corporation might pick up those services.
St. Anne's is a member of Caritas Christi, a Waltham-based system of five Catholic hospitals in Massachusetts.
Ms. Spano said the hospital would be "taking some guidance" from another Catholic facility in the system. Last October, Cardinal Cushing General Hospital of Brockton merged with Goddard Memorial Hospital in nearby Stoughton. The new organization was renamed Good Samaritan Medical Center.