ANNAPOLIS – Lawmakers and reproductive rights groups expressed fears Friday that the trend toward mergers of secular and religious-based hospitals could jeopardize women’s access to full health-care services, like abortions and birth control.
“We want to make sure that women are not going to lose access to the services,” said Sen. Paula Hollinger, D-Baltimore County, at a news conference outside the State House.
She referred to the proposed merger between Greater Baltimore Medical Center and St. Joseph Medical Center, the most recent in a string of such mergers around the state.
Catholic organizations said there is no guarantee that a merger with a church-based hospital would change health care offered to women. But there’s no guarantee that it wouldn’t either.
“There’s no cookie-cutter formula,” said Fred Caesar of the Catholic Health Association.
Officials from the Archdiocese of Baltimore conceded that some services could be denied, depending on the agreement between the facilities that were merging.
“Catholic health care affiliations with non-Catholic health care organizations are formed after careful dialogue and agreement between the participating parties,” said Raymond P. Kempisty, a spokesman for the archdiocese.
“The resulting combination will always ensure that Catholic ethical and religious directives remain in place where Catholic health care services are provided,” he said.
Like all Catholic health-care providers, Hollinger said St. Joseph’s operates under the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services.
Those directives are a set of principles to reaffirm the ethical standards that flow from the church’s teachings about “the dignity of the human person.” They also provide authoritative guidance on certain moral issues that face Catholic health care.
Part 4 of the directives discusses controversial issues such as abortion, contraception and assisted reproduction. Hollinger said she fears that the guidelines would affect rape victims, women seeking abortions, couples who have trouble conceiving and want to try in-vitro fertilization, among other patients.
Hollinger said her goal is not to prevent such mergers but to make sure the questions are answered before hospitals choose a suitor.
“We have to ask those questions,” she said.
In Howard County, the 233-bed Howard County General Hospital is being courted by other hospitals that covet Howard General’s educated, affluent — and insured — patients. The hospital has not made a decision on its future, said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, D- Howard.
“But whoever Howard General merges with, they are going to be the dominant partner,” which can usually dictate the services that the merged hospitals will offer, she said.
Talk of a St. Joseph’s merger has sparked conversation between community leaders and liaisons from religious institutions.
Maryland hospitals are not being asked to scrap mergers with religious-based institutions, said the lawmakers and Planned Parenthood representatives who called Friday’s news conference.
The group said it just wants to make sure that women are not given fewer options for reproductive health care services.