Nineteen groups are challenging a decision by drugstore giant Walgreens to allow a Catholic hospital to run its clinics in Oregon and Washington state, arguing the move will create a health care system “limited by religious doctrine.”
On Monday, a letter signed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), NARAL, Planned Parenthood, and several LGBT rights organizations was sent to Walgreens decrying the company’s plans to partner with Providence Health & Services, a Catholic hospital. Walgreens intends to let the religiously affiliated group run its clinic operations instead of providing its own staff, but signers of the letter expressed concerns about the impact of the shift: namely, whether customers would still have access to contraception, abortion prescriptions, and drugs that allow terminally ill people take their own lives — a practice legal in Oregon and Washington.
“In our states, we have consistently seen that when secular entities join with religious health systems, the services, information, or referrals provided at the secular entity become limited by religious doctrine,” the letter reads. “Even short of formal affiliations…can result in secular entities such as private medical practices agreeing to religious restrictions on care.”
The letter noted that Providence is beholden to ethical guidelines put forward by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which upholds the Catholic Church’s historic opposition to contraception, abortion, and physician-assisted suicide. The Church is also well-known for campaigning against the expansion of many LGBT rights, leading the letter signers to question whether LGBT customers who visit the clinics will be treated fairly by staff.
“Adherence to the [religious guidelines] also increases the likelihood that LGBTQ individuals and their families will face discrimination in seeking to access health care services consistent with their medical needs,” the letter reads. “Can Walgreens offer assurances that its LGBTQ customers and LGBTQ patients at the clinics will be treated with dignity and respect and will receive the same medical standard of care as any other customer?”
The letter is the latest in an ongoing dispute over the consequences of fusing secular health providers with religiously affiliated groups, a growing trend in Washington state, which has become something of a battleground for the issue. As the health care industry expands, a spurt of mergers in the Evergreen State has dramatically changed the makeup of the local medical system: in 2010, only 26 percent hospital beds in Washington were in religiously affiliated hospitals. Today, they represent nearly half.
Advocates who oppose such mergers argue that they could end up denying patients — especially women — important procedures and drugs because hospitals are hamstrung by certain tenets of faith. Earlier this year, a Catholic hospital refused a request from a woman who asked to have her tubes tied to prevent future pregnancies. The hospital rejected her plea on religious grounds, even though the procedure was originally suggested by her doctor, who noted that it might be best to end the potential for future children because the woman also has a dangerous brain tumor.
Religious rules can also limit access to emergency aid. In 2013, the ACLU filed suit on behalf of a woman who had a miscarriage but was denied emergency care from a Catholic hospital, being sent home twice even though she was reportedly enduring excruciating pain. The case was dismissed by a federal court this June, however, because the judge said it would require reviewing religious doctrine.
Monday’s letter noted that ironing out the implications of a merger is crucial for pharmacies such as Walgreens, primarily because they and similar companies such as CVS are rapidly expanding the scope and reach of in-house health care clinics. This growth is slowly transforming pharmacies into the main medical provider for millions of Americans — especially people in poorer areas — and makes the potential impact of mergers with religiously affiliated hospitals all the more influential.