CATHOLIC MERGERS: Fiscal Faults, Abortion Limits Draw Ire
The financial struggles of Pinellas County, FL-based Bayfront Medical Center and St. Anthony's Hospital and their ban on all medically unnecessary abortions -- which may run afoul of Bayfront's public property lease -- are leading some critics to question the benefits of their merger with BayCare Health System, the St. Petersburg Times reports. Jeanne Malchon, a former state senator, said, "The whole idea of BayCare was to provide better service less expensively. Now there's no competition and no one seems to know what's going on." BayCare granted its Catholic hospitals eight seats on its board in 1997 and agreed to permit abortions only to save a mother's life or if the fetus "would not live long after birth" due to defects. While Bayfront administrators have informed patients that they may seek abortions elsewhere and maintain their coverage, "doctors were still galled by the idea that patient care is governed by religious doctrine." Currently, both hospitals are losing about $1 million per month, while they have cut 240 jobs and expect to cut an additional 240 by January (Hundley/Nohlgren, 8/8). An accompanying editorial criticizes Bayfront's decision to terminate its abortion services, noting, "hospital officials ... misled the community" by not mentioning the change in services. The editorial adds, "Just as BayCare would have been wrong to attempt to force the Catholic hospitals to forsake their own religious identities and offer full abortion services, it was misguided to force religious doctrine on the secular institutions." The editorial concludes: "Patients of Bayfront and the other non-religious hospitals in the network deserve to know that they can continue to rely on their providers for the full range of care they historically have received" (St. Petersburg Times, 8/7).
Meanwhile, the proposed merger between the Catholic-owned Our Lady of Lourdes hospital and Cooper Hospital-University Medical Center in Camden, NJ, may result in restricted access to reproductive health care services for women, the AP/Bergen Record reports. Should the merger succeed, Lourdes' prohibition on providing "abortions, sterilizations and contraceptive counseling" would also apply to Cooper, currently the only hospital in Camden that provides such procedures. Lourdes maintains that it is "sensitive to the needs of women's health services in Camden," and that those services will be "moved to other facilities." Bob Stanek, executive vice president of the Mid-Atlantic Division of Catholic Health East, Lourdes' parent company, said, "Being a Catholic-sponsored organization there are a set of morals that we follow. It's something that we will stand firm to and stand true to." But Elizabeth Volz, president of the New Jersey chapter of the National Organization for Women, said that if the merger is completed, "It'll be a serious loss for that community if those services aren't provided." Catholic hospitals' acquisition of secular organizations poses "the biggest threat to access to health care," according to Lois Uttley, director of the MergerWatch Project in Albany, New York. She added, "No one expects a Catholic hospital to provide abortions or other reproductive health services it deems immoral. At the same time, patients have a right to continued access to services that they need and find acceptable based on their own religious beliefs or ethical principles." Lourdes said it will release "a letter of intent" regarding its acquisition of Cooper hospital within the next two weeks (Burney, 8/7).