Local hospital districts weighing a partnership with larger health-care providers may need to determine how their suitors — several of them church-affiliated — will handle an opinion issued Wednesday by the state attorney general which says that publicly funded hospital districts that provide maternity services must also offer contraceptive services and abortion.
State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a Democrat, issued the opinion in response to an inquiry from Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, who asked whether public hospital districts who do not provide services or information for contraceptive care or voluntary termination of pregnancy are in violation of Initiative 120.
The initiative, enacted in 1991, states that residents have a “fundamental right to choose or refuse” birth control or abortion. It also prohibits the state — and in turn, municipal corporations such as publicly funded hospital districts — from refusing to provide benefits, facilities, services or information regarding them.
The opinion was issued only days before the interlocal partnership of Skagit Valley Hospital, Island Hospital and Cascade Valley Hospital, are expected to make a decision as to which large, regional health-care provider they will partner with.
Of three potential suitors, Providence/Swedish and PeaceHealth, which is affiliated with UW Medicine, are faith-based providers. Virginia Mason Medical Center is the lone secular suitor.
Buzz Ely, president of the board representing Island Hospital in Anacortes, said the three boards expect to make their partnership decision Aug. 29 during a public joint meeting.
He said he expects the two faith-based systems to tell how they will respond to the attorney general’s opinion before the boards make their partnership decision.
Ely said his board has decided to retain all patient services already offered at Island Hospital. He said he would require written confirmation from suitors during negotiations that this plan will be respected.
“We need to know their position. Not just now, but forever. It can’t change two years down the road,” Ely said.
After a decision is made, each hospital will enter into separate negotiations with the provider to determine specific levels of integration and services to be provided, Skagit Valley Hospital CEO Gregg Davidson said.
Davidson said if a faith-based provider is chosen, the level of integration decided on by both partners will determine if the attorney general’s decision is a factor.
Davidson said low and medium levels of integration would not bring the opinion to bear, but the hospital has stated it favors a high level of integration.
In his opinion, the attorney general states that the plain language of the law dictates that a public hospital providing maternity care to patients must also provide “substantially equivalent benefits, services and information” to permit patients to voluntarily terminate their pregnancies under Initiative 120.
Ranker’s original request focused on an agreement San Juan County Public Hospital District No. 1 made with Peace-Health, a Catholic health-care provider, to build and operate a hospital in the district, the opinion states.
That agreement allows PeaceHealth to provide only those services consistent with its religious doctrine.
Peace Health’s web — site states, “PeaceHealth does not permit abortion except to save the life of the mother. Contraceptive decisions are between the patient and the health-care provider.”
At a public forum held July 31 in Mount Vernon, Swedish and PeaceHealth representatives said contraceptive services are not restricted at their facilities. They said they do not provide elective abortions on-site, but provide referral services to off-campus services.
The attorney general’s office notes that the opinion does not address what specific policies or practices by hospital districts would demonstrate compliance with Initiative 120.
Davidson said he would need that information to determine whether it would impact the services offered by potential partners.
“We will always comply with what’s required for us by the state,” Davidson said.