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ACLU worries WSU clinic will be limited by Catholic partnership

The participation of Providence Health Care in a clinic planned for Washington State University Spokane’s campus could prevent patients from obtaining birth control or other reproductive services, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

WSU has partnered with Empire Health Foundation and Providence Health & Services to open the Spokane Teaching Health Center. In an earlier announcement, WSU Spokane officials said the clinic will provide health care to low-income patients and be manned primarily by medical, nursing and pharmacy students and other medical professionals. The center obtained federal funding of $900,000 for six medical residency spots and is scheduled to open in 2016.

The ACLU pointed out to WSU regents in a letter on Wednesday that the health center’s bylaws state that it “shall not undertake any activity, nor shall it perform or permit any medical procedure that offends the moral or ethical values or directives of Providence, including but not limited to, the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services. These directives forbid or severely restrict many reproductive and end-of-life health services, including contraception, vasectomies, fertility treatments, tubal ligations, abortion, Death with Dignity, and advance directives that are contrary to Catholic teachings.”

Providence Health & Services is a nonprofit Catholic health care provider based in Renton, Washington, that owns about 30 hospitals, including Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center and Providence Holy Family Hospital in Spokane.

The civil liberties watchdog organization urged the regents to withhold financial support unless a full range of services could be offered, unrestricted by religion.

WSU Spokane spokeswoman Terren Roloff said the university received notice of the ACLU’s letter Wednesday afternoon. “We’ll be working with the regents,” she said, declining to comment further.

The regents are expected to decide at a September meeting whether to sell revenue bonds to finance construction of the residency clinic.

The nonprofit clinic, to be housed in renovated space on the WSU Spokane campus, would provide team-based, multidisciplinary training for students and residents.

Funding for teaching health centers was made available through the federal Affordable Care Act. In an announcement of the facility in December, WSU Spokane said the school hoped eventually to expand the residencies housed in the new clinic to 18.

The ACLU letter comes amid turmoil in medical education in the state. WSU administrators have said they want to establish a medical school in Spokane to better address physician shortages in rural Eastern Washington. The University of Washington, which currently offers medical education in Spokane through the WWAMI program, wants instead to expand the program here. Both schools are expected to appeal to legislators for support of their positions in 2015.

WSU agreed to operate the Spokane Teaching Health Center as a “graduate medical education consortium” with Providence and the Empire Health Foundation.

“We understand that there is a shortage of physicians in eastern Washington, and commend WSU’s efforts to address this serious problem,” wrote ACLU of Washington Executive Director Kathleen Taylor and Policy Counsel Leah Rutman. “However, these efforts must be consistent with best care medical services and comprehensive medical training, unconstrained by Catholic religious doctrine. As an institution of the State of Washington, WSU must not subsidize or support the restriction of health care on the basis of religious doctrine.”

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