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Dignity is merging with a Catholic medical system — will it impact SLO County healthcare?

French Hospital Medical Center in San Luis Obispo is owned by Dignity Health, which is merging with Catholic Healthcare Initiatives.
French Hospital Medical Center in San Luis Obispo is owned by Dignity Health, which is merging with Catholic Healthcare Initiatives. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Dignity Health’s proposed merger with a Catholic medical system is causing concerns about access to healthcare for women and the LGBTQ community in San Luis Obispo County.

Catholic Health Initiatives (CHI) and Dignity announced their intent to merge in December, and California’s attorney general is in the process of holding public meetings throughout the state to hear from affected communities about potential impacts.

Two such meetings will be held in San Luis Obispo and Santa Maria on Sept. 21.

Dignity — a San Francisco-based nonprofit healthcare system — maintains 31 hospitals in California, including three in close proximity to the San Luis Obispo County area: French Hospital Medical Center in San Luis Obispo and Marian Regional Medical Centers in Arroyo Grande and Santa Maria.

Dignity’s history in SLO County

Dignity, previously known as Catholic Healthcare West, changed its name and lost its religious designation in 2012 after the the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops changed its stance on religious directives and partnerships between Catholic and non-Catholic hospitals.

Dignity operates 39 hospitals in California, Nevada and Arizona. In California, 19 Dignity hospitals are Catholic and 12 are non-Catholic.

In the San Luis Obispo County area, Marian Regional Medical Center in Santa Maria has always been a Catholic hospital, while French Hospital and Marian’s Arroyo Grande facility are not affiliated with the church.

About 37.5 percent of hospital patients from San Luis Obispo County were discharged from Dignity facilities in 2016, according to a report on the merger’s potential impact on San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.

SLO County merger impacts

Catholic hospitals generally adhere to Ethical Religious Directives (ERDs), which prohibit certain procedures, including in-vitro fertilizations and elective abortions and sterilizations.

Dignity’s non-Catholic hospitals follow a modified version of ERDs known as a Statement of Common Values, which also prohibits abortions and in-vitro fertilizations, but allows some procedures, such as sterilization by fallopian tube-tying.

The merger with CHI, a Colorado-based healthcare system, will reorganize Dignity’s structure. Some non-Catholic facilities — including French Hospital — will become part of Integrated Healthcare operations, a new nonprofit corporation.

Marian’s Santa Maria and Arroyo Grande facilities will become part of a merged System Corp. sponsored by the Catholic Healthcare Federation.

The Arroyo Grande hospital will retain its consolidated license with Marian’s Santa Maria facility, but will not become Catholic or adhere to ERDs.

“In a nutshell, there are no impacts to programs and services at any of the Dignity Health hospitals or health centers,” said Megan Maloney, a Dignity spokeswoman, in an email.

Healthcare access concerns

Even so, Women’s March San Luis Obispo and LGBTQ healthcare providers expressed apprehension about a Catholic medical system’s involvement in local healthcare.

The organization is encouraging people to come to the meeting and submit their comments and concerns.

“Women’s March SLO advocates for access to quality reproductive healthcare services, birth control, HIV/AIDS care and prevention, and medically accurate sex and reproductive health education, regardless of income, location or gender identity,” said Andrea Chmelik, Women’s March San Luis Obispo lead organizer, in a news release. “We urge the public to make their voices heard at the upcoming hearing, so every person has access to needed care.”

Dr. Denise Taylor, a specialty physician at San Luis Obispo’s Community Heath Centers facility, treats many LGBTQ patients. Taylor said she’s concerned about the impact the merger could have on the vulnerable populations she works with.

Part of Taylor’s apprehension stems from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ newly formed Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, which is meant to “protect the fundamental and unalienable rights of conscience and religious freedom.”

“Because that now exists, these kind of mergers need to be looked at in a different light,” Taylor said.

Taylor is particularly concerned about LGBTQ patients receiving treatment for HIV/AIDS or undergoing surgeries or hormone therapy as part of a gender transition.

Because certain sterilization procedures aren’t allowed at many Catholic-affiliated facilities, transgender patients sometimes have difficulty finding hospitals that will perform transition surgeries, she said.

“If these mergers are going to go forward, we need more assurances about culturally competent LGBT care,” Taylor said.

Public meetings will be held on Friday, Sept. 21, in San Luis Obispo and Santa Maria. The San Luis Obispo meeting will be held at 10 a.m. at the Ludwick Community Center Assembly Room, 864 Santa Rosa St. The Santa Maria meeting will be held at 3 p.m. at the Veterans’ Memorial Community Center, 313 West Tunnell St.

In addition to attending the meetings, residents can submit written comments to Wendi A. Horwitz, deputy attorney general, by email at wendi.horwitz@doj.ca.gov, by fax at 213-897-7605 or by mail at 300 South St., Suite 1702, Los Angeles, CA, 90013. Written comments must be received by Sept. 27.

For more information, call Horwitz’s office at 213-269-6552.

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Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseymholden

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