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Empire sees no loss of service

Abortion rights advocates have been assured that access to the procedure – as well as to vasectomies and other forms of birth control – will continue at hospitals operated by Empire Health Services even after a proposed sale.

Dr. Kim Thorburn, medical director at Planned Parenthood of the Inland Northwest, said Empire board members told her that availability of reproductive services was on the checklist for choosing Community Health Systems Inc. of Tennessee.

“This is a huge concern for the community,” said Thorburn, who raised the issue at a recent meeting of doctors. “If Empire closes, we’d have only Catholic hospitals in this region.”

Community Health, poised to become the nation’s largest for-profit hospital chain, has signed a tentative agreement to buy Empire. Under the plan, Spokane’s Deaconess Medical Center and Valley Hospital and Medical Center would continue to offer a range of services including abortions, contraception and infertility treatments prohibited by the region’s largest medical provider, Providence Health System.

Those services weren’t detailed in Empire’s wish list for selecting a buyer from 10 offers and four finalists, said spokeswoman Becky Swanson.

“It wasn’t strictly a part of the criteria. We didn’t say, ‘Treat our people well, and do abortions,’ ” Swanson said. “But we are committed to a strong two-hospital system with all services available to all people.”

Providence Health System, a Catholic-run chain that operates Spokane’s Sacred Heart Medical Center and Holy Family Hospital, follows guidelines set forth by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The policies, detailed in “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services,” prohibit procedures that terminate pregnancy or interfere with procreation within marriage.

“The Church cannot approve medical practices that undermine the biological, psychological and moral bonds on which the strength of the marriage and the family depends,” the directives state.

The practical effect of the policy is to shift abortion and contraception services to other providers, including those operated by Empire. For example, when Providence bought the Fifth & Browne Medical Center in 2000, urologists who formerly performed vasectomies at the site had to transfer their services to Planned Parenthood. Last year, 96 men received vasectomies at the Planned Parenthood clinic, said Jet Tilley, the agency’s director of public policy.

Private doctors practicing at Deaconess perform a fraction of the nearly 3,000 abortions in Spokane County each year. In 2005, nearly 2,200 women from Washington and nearly 550 from other states sought abortions in the region, according to the most recent figures from the state Department of Health. About 2,100 of those were performed at Planned Parenthood that year, Tilley said.

She noted that abortions account for a small number of services provided each year to about 18,000 clients, mostly women in their 20s. “Really, the bulk of our work has to do with contraception,” she said.

Maintaining access to a wide range of services is Empire’s goal, Swanson said. While Thorburn said she is disappointed the nonprofit hospital system seems destined to be sold to a for-profit buyer, she noted that she felt reassured by the board members’ comments.

“They were really trying to do their due diligence,” she said. “That’s quite a stellar group of people who sit on that committee.”

Officials at Providence were reluctant to discuss access to abortions and contraception.

“A Catholic institution isn’t going to support termination of pregnancy,” said Dr. Jim Shaw, ethicist at Sacred Heart Medical Center.

But Shaw said Providence officials hope that Empire settles on a solution that’s good for the entire region. “Certainly our support is behind Deaconess continuing to be a vital part of the community,” he said. “Our concern is that the poor and the vulnerable continue to get care.”

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