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ACLU concerned by Virginia Mason, CHI Franciscan merger plan

A proposed merger between two Washington medical organizations — Virginia Mason and CHI Franciscan — is raising some eyebrows.

Virginia Mason, a secular medical organization, and CHI Franciscan, which is affiliated with Colorado-based Catholic Health Initiatives, are currently exploring a merger plan to unite their facilities. If completed, the merger would include 12 hospitals and over 250 clinics and other care centers under the same umbrella.

Virginia Mason operates hospitals in Seattle and Yakima, a research facility in Seattle, and clinics throughout the Seattle area. CHI Franciscan runs 10 hospitals in King, Pierce, and Kitsap Counties, as well as other medical facilities around the Puget Sound.

Advocacy groups like the ACLU, the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, and End of Life Washington have expressed concern over the connection of a secular health facility with a religious one, fearing that certain medical services could be limited or done away with altogether.

Leah Rutman, Health Care and Liberty Counsel with the ACLU of Washington, said it has happened before.

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“Time and time again, we see in Washington state, when these mergers between religiously affiliated entities occur with secular organizations, the secular entity normally stops providing certain reproductive and end-of-life care,” Rutman said. “And there may also be prohibitions on LGBTQ-related care.”

She said that “contraception, pregnancy termination, Death with Dignity medications, potentially in-vitro fertilization, and hormone treatments for transgender individuals” could all be affected. Based on past cases, Rutman said that even access to medically necessary abortions — such as in the case of ectopic pregnancies, which put the mother’s life at risk — could be restricted.

“Should we reach a definitive agreement, some services related to reproductive health and physician-assisted death would no longer be provided at Virginia Mason,” CHI Franciscan and Virginia Mason said in a statement. “The physician-patient relationship is private, and we expect physicians would exercise their professional judgment with patients and would discuss all treatment options. If a patient seeks services we do not provide, then we would provide information about other providers.”

CHI Franciscan’s website states that it will not under any circumstance take a “direct action to terminate life.” It does allow for “emergency contraception provisions for sexual assault victims.”

CHI Franciscan’s website also states that it “does not exclude, deny benefits to, or otherwise discriminate against any person on the basis of age, race, color, creed, national origin, ethnicity, religion, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, physical, mental or other disability, citizenship, medical condition, or any other basis prohibited by federal, state, or local law in admission to, participation in, or receipt of the services and benefits under any of its programs and activities.”

Rutman said the merger would also mean over half of Washington hospital beds and over 70% of hospital beds in Yakima County are in religious or religious-affiliated facilities.

“Virginia Mason right now owns the largest hospital in Yakima, they own most of the hospital beds there — add to that the fact that Yakima is already an underserved population that already has high rates of unintended pregnancies and STIs, and it’s really problematic” she said. “When I talk to people in Yakima, they talk about having to get to Seattle to receive care.”

There is no lawsuit or other legal action planned at this time. Instead, Rutman said the ACLU is hoping Virginia Mason will decide not to restrict these services.

“Religious doctrine is not a vehicle to discriminate against others,” Rutman said.

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