There are big changes coming at St. Joseph Medical Center, and that has many people worried about the future of health care in Whatcom County. This issue has been covered in the Stranger and the New York Times, but I wanted to get a local angle, so I sat down with Linda McCarthy, the Executive Director of Mt. Baker Planned Parenthood. Before I get to that, let’s cover some basics.
Background: PeaceHealth is the Catholic management system that owns St. Joseph’s, as well as hospitals in Longview, Friday Harbor and Vancouver (WA) and oversees a network of health centers in Lynden, Mt. Vernon and all the way down the I-5 corridor. Despite their Catholic associations, PeaceHealth has maintained a moderate outlook. They continued their professional relationships with Planned Parenthood, were willing to write prescriptions for birth control and referrals for emergency contraception for rape victims. Currently, PeaceHealth does some of Planned Parenthood’s lab tests. However, now they are merging with a group called Catholic Health Initiatives (CHI), another Catholic management system. So what’s the problem?
The Problem: CHI has a track record of extreme religious interference with patient’s health choices. The Denver-based company has pressured doctors to never prescribe birth control, ignored end-of-life requests and refuses to provide abortion services even in the cases of rape, incest or when the women’s life is in danger. When they roll out the details of the merger this July, who’s values will they be using to decide these issues? PeaceHealth’s moderate position or CHI’s more extreme values?
To explore this question, I sat down with Linda McCarthy, executive director of Mt Baker Planned Parenthood. She cut right to the point. “The biggest concern with the pending partnership with CHI is what this will mean for our community.” She said that when the merger was announced, “alarms went off up and down the I-5 corridor.” She recalled a recent meeting of over ninety concerned citizens in Skagit. “They are worried that the CHI flavor will prevail over PeaceHealth. We want to see that this isn’t going to be the case because there are enormous concern over CHI. People have very real questions about how their health care is going to be impacted and the only answer they are getting is ‘Trust us’.”
McCarthy explained that this conflict had been brewing for a while. Early last year, she received a call from PeaceHealth informing them that the local bishop requested PeaceHealth stop doing Planned Parenthood’s lab tests. Planned Parenthood’s board of directors met and decided to respond with a firm “No deal.” PeaceHealth backed down and continues to perform tests for Planned Parenthood. McCarthy characterizes the whole encounter as “disconcerting.”
“We used to enjoy what I called an ‘arms-distance’ relationship with PeaceHealth . . . but now that they are entering into a partnership with this much more conservative organization, I am deeply concerned. CHI has a long track record of not honoring people’s health decisions.”
What could happen as a result of the merger? “I’m afraid that our patients will be treated differently than others in this community. Our people will no longer be able to rely on them. One of the tests they perform for us is testing for an ectopic pregnancy, a potentially life-threatening situation where the baby is forming outside the uterus. We don’t want any barrier between someone getting that test because they are a Planned Parenthood client.” She rattled off the list of concerns about how CHI will handle a whole range of issues. Beyond the obvious issues of abortion and birth control, there are end-of-life requests, living wills, and concerns over handling transgender patients. How will this conservative management handle visitation rights in a state with full marriage equality?
McCarthy gives PeaceHealth credit for their previous commitment to the values of our community. “They have had a long history of making incremental improvements to access to reproductive care; with better care for rape victims, better care for people with terminal care situations. You’ve seen a growth and a progression, they have done that, until suddenly the bishop started to put it on pause. Hopefully, it will be a temporary pause and not a start of a new way.”
“PeaceHealth represents our community and you want to know what they do in the future enhances the quality of care and doesn’t marginalize specific communities of people. They have a lot riding on getting this right, and if they don’t, we are going to pay the price for that.” McCarthy takes a moment, her voice switching to a tranquil fury.
“In this country, we pay so much for our health care,” McCarthy begins. “As an employee of Planned Parenthood, I pay close to nine thousand dollars a year in premiums. When you think that for the cost of a mortgage, you get a facility that doesn’t trust your decisions or share your values? That is appalling! What is worse is that for many of us, they are the only game in town. You can pay your hard earned dollars and don’t get the options or the care that you deserve.”
So what can people do about this issue? “Raise questions, write letters to the editor. Being engaged in what’s the next step. We don’t really know what the best way is to influence this partnership but we are pulling together a meeting for our community.”
Looking at the big picture, McCarthy notes that it is a turbulent time for health care. “There are a lot of consolidations, not unlike big business. I think that sometimes we are so focused on growth that we lose sight of things that are important. The community that is concerned about these issues really needs to weigh in. With so much consolidation around this country, it’s not just about economics that are factored in. We need to hear about community needs and community access. If your health options are legal but not accessible what’s the point?”
If you want to get involved in these issues, email Planned Parenthood here or give them a call at (360) 603-7705. I will be following this story as it unfolds in our community.