Catholic health systems, healthcare — May 5, 2016 at 11:26 am

New report shows continued growth of Catholic health systems that refuse to provide essential care


One in six hospital beds are governed by rules set by Catholic bishops, not doctors, putting lives and health at risk.

If Catholic health systems continue expanding their reach at the current rate, an alarming number of Americans won’t have access to the full spectrum of healthcare services considered standard of care at non-Catholic hospitals. In some cases, that lack of care access could be life-threatening.

MergerWatch and the ACLU have released an update to their 2013 Miscarriage of Medicine report. This new report gathered updated information, and improved its data analysis by looking at a broader range of hospitals that are governed by Catholic doctrine, including those that were previously Catholic-affiliated and continue practicing Catholic doctrine under secular ownership, and those that list their ownership as public, or governmental, but are actually owned or affiliated with a Catholic health system.

The bottom line? The total number of beds in short-term acute care hospitals that are Catholic owned or affiliated grew from 87,698 in 2001 to an estimated 103,411 in 2016, an increase of 17.9 percent. As a result, 16.6 percent of all acute care beds — or one in every six — are now in hospitals following all or some of the Catholic ethical restrictions on reproductive health services.

As I’ve been writing about here since last year, these restrictions can be dangerous to the health of women and men. Catholic health systems are governed by the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (“the Directives”), which means that religious doctrine can override medical standards of care or patient wishes.

All healthcare providers are allowed to refuse to provide elective abortion services, but Catholic health systems go much, much further. Catholic hospitals across the country have refused emergency care to women requiring medically necessary abortions to protect their lives and health. The ACLU and ACLU of Michigan have filed suit and taken other legal actions to compel Catholic hospitals to provide the same standard of care every other hospital is required to provide.

“Secular hospitals have to adhere to certain safety standards that religious hospitals are exempt from if they say it violates their conscience,” Brooke A. Tucker, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan, told me last year. “How is it fair for secular hospitals to be held to a different standard in order for them to be licensed, in order for them to call themselves a hospital?”

Last fall, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against Trinity Health Corporation, one of the largest Catholic health systems in the country, for its repeated and systematic failure to provide women experiencing pregnancy complications with appropriate emergency abortions as required by federal law.

The case was dismissed, but the ACLU has pledged to continue fighting for the rights of pregnant women to receive appropriate care at every hospital, including Catholic-affiliated facilities.

Another case, involving Tamesha Means of Muskegon, Mich., is currently on appeal. Means was repeatedly turned away by her local hospital — the only one in her county — in the throes of a dangerous miscarriage. The hospital refused to treat her, or even tell her that they would not provide care, until she began delivering the baby that was too premature to survive under any circumstances.

The key findings from the 2016 update of the Miscarriage of Medicine report are alarming:

  • As of 2016, 14.5 percent of all acute care hospitals in the United States are Catholic owned or affiliated.
  • Over the 15-year period 2001 to 2016, the number of acute care hospitals that are Catholic owned or affiliated grew by 22 percent, while the overall number of acute care hospitals
    dropped by 6 percent.
  • One in every six acute care hospital beds is in a facility that is Catholic owned or affiliated.
  • There are five states (Alaska, Iowa, Washington, Wisconsin and South Dakota) where more than 40 percent of acute care beds are in hospitals operating under Catholic health restrictions. In another five states (Nebraska, Colorado, Missouri, Oregon and Kentucky), between 30 and 39 percent of the acute care beds are in facilities that are Catholic owned or affiliated. In Michigan, 24.4 percent of acute care beds are in Catholic owned or affiliated health systems.
  • There are 46 Catholic-restricted hospitals that are the sole community providers of short-term acute hospital care for people living in their geographic regions.
  • The largest Catholic health systems in the nation now control 384 hospitals, compared to 330 in 2011 and 259 in 2001.

One of the most troubling aspects of the new report is the rise of for-profit hospitals and publicly-owned hospitals managed by Catholic health systems, which is explored in case studies. Especially when hospitals don’t have names that identify them as Catholic-affiliated — such as Steward Health Care in the Boston area, which does not mention Catholic restrictions on its website — the public has no way of knowing whether or not their local hospital will provide the care they need or want.

You can read the full report HERE. In a related report released by the ACLU, women and physicians speak out against Catholic hospitals and the threat to women’s health and lives.

You can learn much more by reading my ongoing series on Catholic hospital systems, which includes details on the health risks and individual instances of Catholic health systems denying potentially life-saving care.

I’ll continue reporting on this issue, which can restrict much more than reproductive health services — including end-of-life decisions. Everyone is entitled to their religious beliefs, but those beliefs should never be used to harm others, especially when those people are trusting a healthcare provider with their lives.

[Photo by Kim Hill via Flickr.]