Posted by: sweeneyblog | February 25, 2013

PeaceHealth Merger Threatens Women’s Health in Whatcom County

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’.”

Planned Parenthood

Planned Parenthood

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.



  1. Thanks for this, Riley. We needn’t add backward religious dogma as another barrier for people in this country to get the care they need. Medicine as ‘industry’ and ‘business’ is doing a good enough job of that as it is.

  2. I believe the situation vis-a-vis PH/CHI is a bit more parlous than Ms. McCarthy describes it. I understand and acknowledge the need for diplomatic phrasing, but a more stark and (in my estimation) accurate synopsis may be found in Ms. Madrid’s “The Stranger” article (a fine piece of investigative journalism, too).

  3. Riley,

    Aside from the “controlled fury,” keep in mind there used to be two hospitals in town… Why don’t those who want a hospital “reflecting their values” start one?… Perhaps with limited services (got a heart or cancer condition go to the other hospital)…
    Certainly, a competitive testing operation could be started up. Too many have grown accustomed to living on other people’s money. Want something thta reflects your values? Do it yourself!

    • That’s part of the challenge though, many people do not have the resources (financial or expertise) to start a hospital, much less keep it up and running. No one is living on other people’s money, far from it. We all support St. Joseph with our tax dollars. Since we are paying into the system, with our insurance costs, tax dollars and co-pays, the least we can expect is to get the health options that are legally available and not be subjected to someone else’s religious beliefs.

    • To answer your question:

      1) Cost factors (in the many million dollar range); one issue.
      2) Certificate of need; that’s another.
      3) Patient base (aka market); a third consideration.
      4) Current Federal legislation governing physician-owned medical centers and self-referral (commonly known as the Stark Law, but more specifically as Section 1877 of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 1395nn)); yet another.
      4) Threat of legal action by CHI/PeaceHealth; still one more
      5) Various other restrictions on investor-owned healthcare facilities.

      Want more? There are legions of reasons, but nothing to support your “either-or” dichotomy.

      Plus, the ad hominem attack (“controlled fury”) does little to lend credibility to your argument. By my reading, this was a simply an objective interview by Mr. S. of someone who may or (evidently in your case) may not reflect your perspectives on what a taxpayer supported, religiously affiliated, “private” medical facility should offer to a diverse community.

      • Never said being free was easy.

        The “controlled fury” comment cannot be considered an ad hominem attack. It is a quote from the piece, a characterization by Sweeny to inform the reader and, thus the commentary resulting.

        As to the potential for setting up a “hospital” reflecting the values of one group or another, at least two of my doctors do pretty complex surgeries in their own clinics. There is no reason a doc committed to the values Planned Parenthood espouses couldn’t do the same. Medicaid might be an issue there but I think the issue could be overcome and certainly for those insured otherwise a clinc shouldn’t be a problem.

        What Ms McCarthy is really asking of St. Joes is that the hospital honor her values at the expense of honoring the values of those who do not support her organization. Is it more important to honor her values than the values of those who disagree with her?

    • This is priceless.
      A guy that spends his entire waking life complaining about his square box of wishes and dreams not fitting the round hole of reality suggesting that the answer is to go rogue and create your own new box of reality.
      Go do it yourself Jack.

      • Hey Rube,

        The “round hole of reality” can fit into a square hole with room left over for expanded horizons. The comfortable confines of the round hole have led to the nanny state we now live in… You are comfortable living within its confines… I prefer a little room for those dreams of freedom and other outmoded concepts.

  4. What you are asking of the general public is to provide support for an institution that espouses a value-driven rather than scientifically based approach to patient care. You are also confusing unrelated issues: Medicaid has no direct on whatever argument you are attempting to formulate (the logical flaw: secundum quid). A few of the reasons an “alternative” hospital cannot be readily established were explained to you, above. In short, what you are suggesting as an alternative is, on the face of it, simply absurd. I suppose this entire discourse explains why it’s so futile to engage in internet exchanges and why I am so rarely motivated to do so.

  5. Riley,
    This is an important topic that is invisible to most Whatcom residents. Thank you for raising it.

    The problem your blog discusses is generic: what happens when a large monopoly provider imposes religious policies not shared by many members of the public?

    The problem is worsened by the unstable economics of medical care in a medium-sized, isolated market (Whatcom). There just isn’t room for two hospitals to run efficiently at modern scale. Worse, the State, County, and City in their infinite wisdom deem Peace Health as a “non-profit” to be excused from B&O tax (and all other taxes).

    The moniker “non-profit” is of course a misnomer, because “non-profit” hospitals in America are twice as profitable as are “for-profit” hospitals. They would be better called “shareholder-less” hospitals. They make lots of revenue in excess of costs (aka “profit”), even after paying their well-compensated senior management. Make no mistake about it, Peace Health is a corporate monopoly in our region, no less than Comcast is for cable in Bellingham.

    Think of the tax implications of medical businesses’ being gobbled-up by Peace Health. When Madrona Medical was gobbled up, it suddenly left the tax rolls. When Cascade Cardiology was gobbled up, it suddenly left the tax rolls. When Mt. Baker Imaging was gobbled up, it suddenly left the tax rolls. This creates a tax inducement to consolidate into the one existing shareholder-less monopoly. In effect the largest industry in Whatcom (medical care) is in the final stages of leaving the tax rolls. Smart, huh?

    Like cheating at an exam, this tax avoidance is not a victim-less crime. As the tax base becomes narrower, the remaining businesses, that don’t have a plausible accounting alibi to be labeled “non-profit”, need to carry a higher per-capita burden.

    Abe Jacobson

    • Very interesting and insightful (no irony intended) comment.

  6. […] my article earlier this year about the impending PeaceHealth merger? It looks like it is not going to happen. The Bellingham Herald is reporting that Catholic Health […]

  7. […] has also drawn significant controversy for their potential merger with an even more conservative catholic company last year that eventually fell through, in part due to the massive public opposition to the […]

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