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Originally published July 21, 2013 at 4:04 PM | Page modified July 23, 2013 at 8:04 AM

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Editorial: A sensible response to hospital merger concerns

The rapid rise of partnerships between secular and religious hospitals in Washington state should be reviewed. Gov. Jay Inslee’s July 1 directive for the state Department of Health to update its rules is a smart start.

Seattle Times Editorial

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THE increasing influence of Catholic health systems in Washington state has many concerned access to care that conflicts with the church’s beliefs will be diminished.

Many Catholic hospitals place restrictions on some reproductive care, such as elective abortions, and on certain end-of-life services, including physician-assisted suicide.

In May, a coalition led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington asked Gov. Jay Inslee to issue a six-month moratorium on mergers.

Inslee does not have legal standing to stall these new partnerships, but he started asking important questions. He directed the state Department of Health to update Washington's Certificate of Need program, which is the regulatory process used to approve changes in health-care provider ownership, facilities and services.

At the beginning of 2012, Catholic health systems operated about one-third of hospital beds in Washington.

If the state approves a series of pending and proposed partnerships, they may operate nearly half of hospital beds by year’s end.

The Catholic systems’ quality of care is not really the issue. Concerns center on the possibility of patients losing access or referrals to the full range of legal reproductive and end-of-life services banned by religious doctrine.

ACLU attorneys point out Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, for example, stopped providing elective abortions after it merged with Providence Health & Services in 2011.

The Health Department report is due Oct. 31 and possibly will provide much-needed clarity on the issue of how hospital sales, mergers and affiliations (such as the recent “strategic” agreement formed between the University of Washington’s medical school and Catholic-sponsored PeaceHealth) will affect patient access to services, costs and quality of care.

The stakes are high. Consumers should be aware of all their medical options. State government is a major purchaser of hospital services using taxpayer dollars.

The governor’s pragmatic approach also acknowledges a broader issue. Secular institutions are merging or shifting their business model because federal health-care reforms will require all hospitals to increase efficiencies, control costs and deliver better health outcomes.

More action may be necessary to preserve access to constitutionally protected services. For now, Inslee’s directive is a sensible way forward.

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