Proposed hospital buyout could limit reproductive, end-of-life care

The contentious transfer of two Colorado-based Exempla hospitals to a Catholic health care network is likely to further shrink comprehensive health care services for Denver-area patients because they violate church doctrine.

Local patients seeking reproductive health care or termination of invasive life support could soon face health care professionals invoking conscience clauses, should the transfer of Exempla Lutheran Hospital in Wheat Ridge and Exempla Good Samaritan Hospital in Lafayette to the Kansas-based Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth Health System be approved.

As the Denver Business Journal reported over the weekend, an arbitrator blocked the sale of the Exempla hospitals by the Arvada-based Community First Foundation to the Sisters of Charity over a legal technicality. But the actual transfer of operational control of the facilities, which are jointly owned in a complex membership agreement between the two organizations, continues to move forward albeit without the $311 million buyout windfall to the foundation.

Arbitrator William Meyer ruled Friday in a binding decision that the Sisters of Charity cannot buy the foundation’s stake in the two hospitals according to the Exempla bylaws that govern the membership agreement between the two organizations that founded the Exempla system in 1997 from the ashes of two Lutheran hospitals.

The Exempla board filed suit in 2008 to block the sale citing, in part, concerns over that non-sectarian medical policies would be discontinued under a Roman Catholic health care system.

Issues of religious doctrinal interference in physician-patient decision making came to a head in 2007 when Gov. Bill Ritter signed a law requiring hospitals and pharmacies to provide sexual assault victims information about emergency contraception. A conscience clause was added to the bill that provides a right for health care providers who object on moral grounds to opt out. Likewise, during the 2009 legislative session, Catholic church lobbying forced a more narrow legal definition of contraception in the state’s landmark Birth Control Protection Act to exclude mifespristone, also known as RU-486, and other federally approved pharmaceuticals that induce abortion.

However, none of those safeguards are in place for other reproductive health services, like sterilization or abortion, or in end-of-life care procedures that require the removal of feeding tubes or ventilators.

Currently, Catholic health organizations currently operate 11 hospitals and a dozen skilled nursing, hospice and outpatient facilities in Colorado.

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