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Washington's Rules On Secular-Religious Hospital Mergers Blocked

Swedish Hospital's facility on Seattle's First Hill.
Flickr Photo/Matthew Rutledge (CC BY 2.0)
Swedish Hospital's facility on Seattle's First Hill.

New state rules intended to address secular hospitals' partnerships with Catholic health organizations has been rejected by the Washington Supreme Court.

The court ruled unanimously that the state Department of Health overextended its authority in expanding oversight of hospital mergers and affiliations.

Critics of secular hospitals' affiliation with religious health systems say religious doctrine could govern these affiliations and limit people’s access to reproductive or end-of-life services.

Sallie Sanford, associate professor of law at the University of Washington Law School, says the court’s decision means that rule won’t be available as a tool for regulating hospitals. Nor is it going to end the debate.

“The issues about whether or not these are good for access and good for cost control, and good for the community, those are not going to go away,” Sanford said. 

The Washington State Hospital Association, which challenged the rule, welcomed the court’s decision. Spokesperson Mary Kay Clunies-Ross said critics’ fears have been unfounded. She said a recent report by the state Office of Financial Management showed there has been no impact.

“Mostly because those services are generally not hospital services,” she said. “In fact, 99 percent of people who voluntarily terminate do not do that in a hospital.”

But Leah Rutman with the ACLU of Washington says there has been an impact. She points to Harrison Medical Center in Bremerton, which became part of the Franciscan Health system in 2013.

“They stopped providing Death with Dignity services,” she said. “When Swedish affiliated with Providence, they stopped providing a lot of termination services. There are quite a few examples where services have been either constrained or eliminated when these affiliations occur.”

The ACLU maintains government oversight is needed of such mergers.

Photo: ‘The imposing Swedish Hospital main building’ by Matthew Rutledge on flickr (CC BY 2.0

Year started with KUOW: 1994