By Steve Wehrly, Journal reporter
PeaceHealth officials vowed last week that there would be no scale-back in women's services when the medical center in Friday Harbor closes its doors and Peace Island Medical Center takes its place as the main provider of publicly funded health care services on San Juan Island.
Those promises were made June 20 at a meeting of the San Juan Island Hospital District Commission and follow in the wake of a request from an official with the Catholic Archdiocese in Seattle, sent recently to PeaceHealth's Bellingham laboratory, asking that the lab cease providing services to Planned Parenthood clinics.
At the June 20 meeting, with an audience of about 50 islanders on hand, Peace Island Medical Center CEO Jim Barnhart said PeaceHealth has no intention of denying services to Planned Parenthood in spite of the Archdiocese's request. Barnhart noted that PeaceHealth operates independently of Seattle's Archdiocese despite its Roman Catholic roots.
"PeaceHealth is not owned, operated or governed by the Catholic Church,” Barnhart said. Peace Island Medical Center, which is slated to open in Friday Harbor at the end of the year, is a unit of PeaceHealth. "PeaceHealth has not discontinued services to Planned Parenthood and will not discontinue services to Planned Parenthood."
A Bellevue-based nonprofit healthcare system, PeaceHealth owns and operates St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham, as well as medical centers and rural-care hospitals in Alaska, Washington and Oregon. It has been a Northwest healthcare provider for more than a century, and is financing roughly two-thirds of the $30 million construction cost of Peace Island Medical Center, which is slated to open in Friday Harbor, near the airport, at the end of year.
As designed, Peace Island Medical Center will be a 10-bed critical access hospital providing expanded primary care and specialty clinic, enhanced diagnostic center, a cancer care suite providing on-island chemotherapy and cancer services and a 24-hour emergency room. As part of a binding agreement approved by the hospital commission, PIMC will replace San Juan Island's 38-year-old medical clinic, Inter Island Medical Center, once it opens. The hospital district will pass onto PeaceHealth its annual property tax revenue — about $1.2 million a year — to subsidize health care at the new medical center.
PeaceHealth Care System was founded by the Roman Catholic Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. In their online “About Us” statement, the Congregation says it will continue their founder’s “emphasis on human rights, especially women’s rights.”
According to Linda McCarthy, director of the Mt. Baker Planned Parenthood in Bellingham, which also offers services in Friday Harbor, PeaceHealth officials offered assurances but no answers about their next move when she met with them to discuss Archbishop J. Peter Sartain's letter and its contents. She said that she later received a telephone call from PeaceHealth saying it "will continue business as usual with Planned Parenthood as they tried to find a solution" to the Archbishop's request and the need for laboratory services for Planned Parenthood clients.
If promises are being made, she said that she would like them spelled out on paper.
"While we are encouraged to hear a representative of PeaceHealth state publicly they plan to continue providing lab services to Planned Parenthood patients, we have not officially been informed of that news," McCarthy said. "We look forward to receiving that confirmation in writing."
Barnhart said that doctors in other PeaceHealth clinics and hospitals provide family planning services, including tubal ligations, vasectomies and prescriptions for contraceptives, and that he expects Peace Island hospital and clinics will continue that policy here. Those service are available through Inter Island Medical Clinic at present. Barnhart said that Inter Island Medical Center doctors who will join Peace Island have not provided elective abortion services at the clinic and have unanimously said they will not provide elective abortions at PIMC. However, Barnhard noted that in emergency situations Peace Island would not interfere in its physician's medical judgments.
Like Barnhart, PeaceHealth's Michael Garrido, vice president of mission intregration, assured those services would continue and that PIMC's policies will be put down on paper. “We’ll provide these policies in writing,” Garrido said.
Following the meeting, Hospital Commission Chairwoman Lenore Bayuk said that written policies “will be developed by the PeaceIsland Board” (which has yet to be named) and would be available before PIMC opens in November.
“Those policies will be consistent with what was said here tonight,” she said.