ACLU ‘deeply concerned’ by Virginia Mason, CHI Franciscan health system merger

Virginia-Mason-Memorial Washington

YAKIMA, Wash. — Two major health systems based in Washington state are merging together, sparking concern from some health advocates about the changes that might bring to patients’ access to services.

The secular Virginia Mason health system is looking to combine with CHI Franciscan, a religious health system, but says it will continue to operate as a non-Catholic health system after the merger, which is anticipated to be completed by the end of the year.

Advocacy organizations issued a joint statement Wednesday voicing their concerns about the merger, including that patients will be denied access to reproductive health care and end of life care options.

“These restrictions, disproportionately harm women, terminally ill patients, communities of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, low-income populations and rural communities,” said Kim Clark, Senior Attorney for Legal Voice.

Officials said Virginia Mason would, “ensure it does not cause CHI Franciscan to come out of compliance with the Ethical and Religious Directives,” which govern what services Catholic health facilities are allowed to provide.

The directives prohibit reproductive health services, such as, “all birth control methods, sterilization, abortion, some miscarriage management techniques, the least invasive treatments for ectopic pregnancies, and infertility treatments such as in vitro fertilization,” according to the National Health Law Program.

To ensure that those directives are followed, officials said, “A very small number of services related to reproductive health and physician-assisted deaths would no longer be provided at Virginia Mason.”

A spokesperson for the merger told KAPP-KVEW on Thursday that providers will still be able to discuss all treatment options with patients and refer them to other providers if they need treatment that the facility can no longer provide.

“The relationship between our patients and their providers is private and we expect our physicians to continue to exercise their professional judgment to discuss all treatment options,” the spokesperson said. “If a patient seeks services we do not provide, then we would provide information about other providers.”

The two combined health systems would operate 12 hospitals and more than 250 health care facilities statewide, including medical centers, clinics and hospice.

KAPP-KVEW reached out to Virginia Mason Memorial hospital in Yakima for this story and was provided with the following statement from the chairman of the hospital’s Board of Directors, David Hargreaves:

“We are excited to learn more about the possibilities for Central Washington concerning this nonbinding memorandum of understanding, and we will fulfill our fiduciary duty to make certain this is what is best for Virginia Mason Memorial. We also have a moral obligation to our community to ensure sustainable, high-quality health care for the people of Central Washington.”

At the present, officials have assured patients that they will be allowed to use their health care facilities and insurance plans as usual, but that may change over time.

“Each organization will share updates with patients well in advance of any changes taking place,” officials said.

In the statement, advocates said Virginia Mason should refuse to limit the reproductive and end-of-life care they provide.

“These denials put patients at risk, cause unnecessary delays, increase costs, and at times mean patients are unable to receive certain forms of reproductive health care altogether,” said Lillian Lanier, Political and Organizing Director at NARAL Pro-Choice Washington.

The statement was signed by:

  • ACLU of Washington
  • Coalition for Inclusive Health Care
  • End of Life Washington
  • Gender Justice League
  • GSBA: Washington’s LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce
  • Legal Voice
  • NARAL Pro-Choice Washington
  • Northwest Abortion Access Fund
  • Northwest Health Law Advocates
  • Surge Reproductive Justice
  • Washington ACOG
  • Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence

*This article has been updated to include an additional statement from a merger spokesperson.