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May 28, 2013 at 7:00 AM

No need to paint all Catholic hospitals in Washington with same broad brush

Tuesday’s editorial argues there’s a difference between health systems that merge and those that are setting up a new working relationship. I urge us all to resist painting UW Medicine‘s latest community hospital ally, PeaceHealth, with the same broad brush that many might be tempted to apply to the entire Catholic hospital system.

The UW Medicine-PeaceHealth “strategic affiliation” announced last week is more or less a referral network that is intended to serve two major purposes. First, officials say their goal is to provide patients of all backgrounds with seamless care in an age of complex health care reforms that will demand better outcomes. Second, we’re looking at an opportunity to train the next generation of doctors, nurses and hospital employees.

The public should not confuse this “strategic affiliation” with the other emerging trend in Washington state that will soon lead to half of all hospital beds being run by Catholic-affiliated hospitals. I certainly have some concerns about this, as previously expressed by Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat and tracked by MergerWatch.org. I believe patients in publicly-subsidized hospitals deserve to have access to the full range of health services — including abortion care, scientifically-proven stem-cell procedures and end-of-life services. At some point, lawmakers may have to set some parameters.

Of course, each hospital should be judged on its own merits. After spending considerable time on the phone with the key players in this “strategic affiliation,” including UW Medicine Chief Health System Officer Johnese Spisso and PeaceHealth Chief Strategy Officer Peter Adler, I don’t believe this particular alliance is an attempt by the Catholic church to take over the university’s venerable teaching hospital and limit what future doctors and nurses are trained to do.

Here’s why:

  • PeaceHealth is independent and its properties are not owned by the Catholic church. Hospital leaders have the flexibility to change and adapt rules.
  • PeaceHealth practitioners have been sending patients to UW Medicine facilities for years, despite the fact they have different views on abortion and end-of-life care. They’ve also been a training ground in the past for family practice doctors and nurses.
  • PeaceHealth outlines its philosophy on its web site and through its Statement of Common Values. Bottom line: PeaceHealth is trying to be transparent. The system does not appear ideologically-driven; nor does it promote traditional Catholic doctrine. I view this as a hopeful sign that religious hospitals can take pragmatic steps to co-exist and work with secular institutions.

In the Obamacare era, it makes sense for these two respected institutions to coordinate care, reduce duplication and get patients back to their communities as quickly as possible. No money is being exchanged. Because this isn’t a merger, UW Medicine is not subjecting itself to the rules of the church. In exchange, PeaceHealth is able to offer its patients easier access to UW’s highly-specialized health care services, including high-risk cardiac surgeries, organ transplants and advanced treatments for burn victims.

Our editorial outlines several questions that should continue to be addressed in public conversations. Give UW Medicine and PeaceHealth a chance to explain how they plan to make this “affiliation” work in the community’s best interest. Take religion out of the equation. Both sides are focused on caring for patients regardless of their ability to pay. Let them continue that important work and be a model for others.

Comments | Topics: abortion, catholic church, health care

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