A Roman Catholic hospital in Little Rock, Ark., is ending its lease arrangement with a group of physicians after church officials in Rome further scrutinized the deal.
The year-old arrangement allowed the Arkansas Women's Health Center, a group of about 30 independent physicians, to lease space inside 308-bed St. Vincent Doctors Hospital for elective sterilizations of women who delivered babies at the hospital.
The arrangement, initially approved by Arkansas' Bishop Andrew McDonald, allowed the hospital to distance itself from the procedures, which the Catholic Church prohibits.
But circumstances changed after McDonald requested, and recently received, additional review of the deal by an arm of the Catholic Church in Rome that deals with the interpretation of moral teachings.
"Based on that evaluation, it was felt the arrangement should be discontinued," Monsignor J. Gaston Hebert, vicar general of the Diocese of Little Rock, said in a prepared statement.
Frances Kissling, president of the Washington-based advocacy group Catholics for a Free Choice, criticized the decision to end the service.
She said the move shows that women's reproductive services are not guaranteed after a merger between a Catholic and non-Catholic hospital.
"My sense is, Rome is increasingly interested in these mergers and increasingly interested in assuring that creative compromises are not developed," she said.
The lease arrangement with the physicians began in June 1998, four months after St. Vincent Health System acquired Doctors Hospital from Nashville-based Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp.
St. Vincent, whose flagship 657-bed St. Vincent Infirmary Medical Center is across the street from Doctors Hospital, is part of Denver-based Catholic Health Initiatives, a national system with 70 hospitals.
At the time of the acquisition in February 1998, St. Vincent discontinued abortions and elective sterilizations at Doctors Hospital. But patient demand led St. Vincent and physicians to find a way to provide tubal ligations. St. Vincent consolidated its women's services at Doctors Hospital after the acquisition.
Before the lease deal, St. Vincent officials consulted with the local diocese, CHI ethicists and "other respected Catholic moral theologians," a hospital official said in a statement.
Under the lease, the physicians pay "fair-market value" for about 630 square feet of space near the hospital's labor and delivery ward, said Scott Mosley, St. Vincent's vice president of corporate development. The physicians also reimburse the hospital for supplies; Mosley declined to provide specific financial figures.
About 370 sterilizations have taken place since the arrangement began, Mosley said. Those account for roughly 10% of the women who deliver about 3,000 babies annually at the hospital.
St. Vincent recognizes it could lose the business of women who choose to deliver their babies elsewhere so they can undergo sterilization.
"Obviously, that is a consideration," Mosley said.
St. Vincent and the physicians are moving ahead with plans for lease termination, which requires six months' notice.
C. Kemp Skokos, M.D., president of the physician's group, said he was disappointed.
"But I knew this was a possibility, and those are the breaks," he said.
Women, he said, can still undergo sterilization procedures at other local hospitals and outpatient clinics.