Memorial Hospital pushes to stay local, breaks with Virginia Mason over large health system merger

YAKIMA, Wash. — Virginia Mason Memorial hospital is ending its affiliation with Virginia Mason after a near-five-year partnership due to the upcoming merger between the health system and CHI Franciscan.

“Wednesday night, we had a three-and-half hour meeting,” said David Hargreaves, Chairman of the Virginia Mason Memorial Board of Directors. “While we are very grateful for everything that Virginia Mason has brought to the table, we just didn’t feel at this time like it was a good fit for us.”

The board of directors said the decision was made with input from the community about the potential impact of the merger on residents, patients, employees, the Memorial Foundation and community health-care providers and partners.

“Providing access to high quality and specialty care to more patients in Yakima and beyond is the foundation of Virginia Mason Memorial,” the release said. “It is the board’s responsibility to ensure this continues.”

Virginia Mason announced in July it would be merging with religious health system CHI Franciscan. While officials said its hospitals would remain secular, they would have to stop providing end of life care and certain reproductive health services.

CHI Franciscan operates under the Ethical and Religious Directives, which govern what services Catholic health facilities are allowed to provide.

The directives prohibit end-of-life care, as well 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.

The ACLU and other advocacy organizations previously issued a joint statement voicing their concerns about the merger, including claims that patients will be denied access to needed medical care.

“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.

However, Hargreaves said the board’s decision to discontinue its affiliation with Virginia Mason had nothing to do with those concerns. He said if the secular Yakima hospital had continued through the merger, the restrictions would not have affected patient care.

“We wouldn’t be able to do elective abortions, but frankly, we don’t do elective abortions now,” Hargreaves said. “And the end-of-life, we don’t really do it in the hospital and in fact, we have a statement that we won’t do it in the hospital.”

Rather, Hargreaves said the decision stemmed from a desire to keep Memorial as a smaller hospital focused on local healthcare.

In a news release Friday, the board said they, “wanted to ensure that health care in the Yakima Valley remained local and dedicated to caring for [the] Central Washington community.”

In addition to their affiliation with the Yakima hospital, Virginia Mason operates numerous clinics, a research institute and a hospital —Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle.

In contrast, CHI Franciscan has 311 facility locations statewide, including rehab centers, clinics and 10 hospitals. 

“It would be a very large organization and we just didn’t feel at this time that would be appropriate,” Hargreaves said. “Yakima has a very unique medical community and a lot of unique things going on.”

Hargreaves said involved parties still need to determine what will happen with the name of the Yakima hospital. It’s unclear if Virginia Mason Memorial hospital will be able to keep the first part of the name if they are no longer affiliated with Virginia Mason.

“Those are the things that we will continue to work out in the next 60 to 90 days,” Hargreaves said. “We may return to just ‘Memorial.’”

Hargreaves said patients should see no changes in services or care once the affiliation is removed.

“We are going to continue to be there for our patients,” Hargreaves said. “We are going to continue to provide quality healthcare with good access and, hopefully, constant improvements.”

While the affiliation is on its way out, Hargreaves said Memorial will continue to work with Virginia Mason.

“The decision to affiliate was really based on their reputation for excellent care and quality improvement culture,” Hargreaves said. “We’ve learned a lot from our mutually beneficial partnerships. We’re really grateful for everything they brought to us.”

Hargreaves said he anticipates the removal of the affiliation to be finalized within the next three months.

A joint statement was issued Friday by the ACLU of Washington, NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, End of Life Washington American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Washington State, Cedar River Clinics, Compassion & Choices, Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, and Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho.

“We are relieved that Memorial Hospital in Yakima has chosen to put patients and workers first and will not be part of the Virginia Mason – CHI Franciscan merger. As a result, residents in Yakima will continue to have access to essential medical services, including reproductive and end-of-life care. Unfortunately, the merger will still negatively impact health care access for thousands of Washingtonians. No Washingtonian should face the loss of services due to hospital mergers and the state should take strong action to provide meaningful oversight of health system consolidations.”