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ACLU enters Peace Island fray

Claiming that the contract with PeaceHealth violates state law and the state Constitution, the ACLU of Washington is urging the San Juan County Public Hospital District to renegotiate its 50-year agreement with the Vancouver-based regional hospital and medical center conglomerate.

In a Jan. 3 letter to the hospital district, the ACLU cites the “religious establishment” clause in Article I, Section 11 of the state constitution as authority for its claim that the $1 million annual subsidy may “impermissibly support” religious restrictions on reproductive and end-of-life health services.

The ACLU letter follows a September letter from the island-based Coalition for Health Care Transparency and Equity, which sought assurances from the Hospital District commission that PeaceHealth, as a Roman Catholic-based organization, would offer a full range of reproductive and end-of-life services, even if such services would not be provided under the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services promulgated by the Roman Catholic bishops.

Attention to the Ethical and Religious Directives in the Coalition’s letter was prompted by a PeaceHealth disclosure that PeaceHealth was in negotiations with Catholic Health Initiatives of Denver, Colo., to join with other CHI hospitals form “a fully-integrated new health system”. CHI is the second-largest Catholic health care network in the U.S. and on its website proclaims its adherence to the Ethical and Religious Directives.

As a junior taxing district, the Public Hospital District levies two property taxes, one of which subsidizes emergency and underfunded primary care and the other for providing EMS and MedEvac services. The emergency and underfunded primary care subsidy, about $1 million per year, is dedicated by contract to the Peace Island Medical Center. The subsidy is central to the ACLU allegation that the hospital district is supporting religious restrictions on reproductive and end-of-life services.

Kathleen Taylor, Executive Director of the ACLU of Washington, explained the ACLU action in a statement to the Journal: “We’re paying attention to this issue because we’ve seen an increase in hospital mergers. Since reproductive freedom is such a fundamental right for women, the ACLU wants to ensure that access to medical services at the hospital includes access to fundamental reproductive health services. And we want to make sure the hospital honors people’s rights to make decisions about end-of-life care.”

In a Jan. 11, press release, the hospital commission responded to the ACLU letter, saying “We respectfully disagree with the conclusions drawn by the ACLU in its letter, however, we are considering what, if any, action is necessary on our part.”

The statement reiterated the position taken by the commission in its response to the transparency coalition letter, that there had not been and would not be any loss of health care services previously provided by the hospital district through Inter Island Medical Center, including reproductive and end-of-life services.

Lenore Bayuk, chairwoman of the hospital commission, also said that the commission would discuss the ACLU letter as part of its Jan. 11 meeting.

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