Merger into Catholic based system has hurt reproductive services at Chelsea Hospital
In May of 2008, I wrote an opinion piece published in the now defunct Ann Arbor News commenting on an anticipated merger between Chelsea Community Hospital, a not-for-profit community hospital, and St. Joseph Mercy Health System, a Catholic not-for-profit healthcare system that is part of the larger Trinity Health, a seven-state Catholic healthcare organization.
I opined that, contrary to the reporting done by The News in two previous articles, the merger of Chelsea Community Hospital with a Catholic healthcare organization might not be in the best interests of all the citizens of Chelsea, and in fact might be harmful to the health and welfare of those residents seeking reproductive healthcare services.
There were two responses to that piece: both responses ignored the central tenet of my essay entirely, instead asserting that reproductive healthcare was not an essential healthcare service in the first place and accusing me of being a Nazi in the second.
Since May of 2008, the merger between the two institutions has been completed. As predicted, there have been substantial changes to Chelsea: most references to “infertility evaluations, and surgical options” are gone from Chelsea’s web site. A call to the gynecology clinic at Chelsea revealed that neither men nor women can have a sterilization procedure in the hospital, and that prescriptions for emergency contraception (EC) might be obtained from providers in their offices, but certainly not at the hospital.
Surprisingly, “family planning” is still listed on the Web site, but I surmise this is an oversight since the provision of these services is expressly forbidden by the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, the document that controls the provision of any healthcare service within a Catholic organization.
So why does any of this matter, anyway?
The Catholic Church controls a huge and growing slice of the health care pie as evidenced by the following numbers: the 600 Catholic hospitals represent an estimated 12 percent of the total US hospitals, which received $45 billion in public funds, and treat 1 in 6 Americans annually. In 2003, Ascension Health, the largest Catholic system in the United States remarkably brought in total revenue of $10.04 billion. And of course in the most recent past, we witnessed a dramatic tour de force of the influence of Catholic healthcare in the recent Congressional debate over healthcare reform resulting in the Stupak-Pitts amendment, potentially eliminating abortion services for women covered by the plan. The scope of Catholic healthcare in the nation’s healthcare system is daunting to say the least.
Ever since the 1965 and 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Griswold vs. Connecticut and Eisenstadt vs Baird, established a basic right to unfettered access to medically accurate contraceptive services, the need for these services has grown exponentially. Forty years after the introduction of the oral contraceptive pill, women, and men worldwide, rightly consider reproductive healthcare services as central to their well-being.
Poor and low-income women bear a disproportional brunt of mergers between Catholic and secular hospitals as they rely on such hospitals for much of their healthcare needs compared with affluent women. Geography (in the case of rural women) and economics or both restrict their choice of healthcare institution to Catholic hospitals with the resultant abandonment of their reproductive needs, this in the face of the overt mission of Catholic hospitals and in the words of the mission statement of Trinity Health, “ to heal body, mind and spirit, to improve the health of our communities and to steward the resources entrusted to us.”
Hypocrisy such as this does little to further the public good. Mergers between secular non-profit hospitals such as Chelsea and Catholic hospital systems that result in the elimination of vital healthcare services must not be allowed to proceed. There is clear precedent for a “divorce” between unequal partners such as these, as many merged systems have un-merged to better provide needed care to their constituent patient population. Chelsea Hospital and the people of Chelsea would be well served to do the same.
Michael I. Hertz, an Ann Arbor resident, is medical director of Planned Parenthood of South Central Michigan and an associate clinical professor with the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine.