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AG: public hospital districts can't restrict access to women's reproductive services

Local public hospital districts that provide maternity services or related information must also offer access to contraceptive and abortion services and information consistent with the "fundamental rights" to birth control and abortion guaranteed by Initiative 120, according to a legal opinion issued Aug. 21 by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

The opinion was requested by state Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas, in response to questions raised in 2012, prior to the opening of Peace Island Medical Center, a unit of PeaceHealth, a system of medical centers affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. The district, supported by local property taxes, provides about $1 million in annual funding to Peace Island under an operating agreement.

The formal legal opinion, which the attorney general's press release says is not legally binding but is given “great weight” by the courts, said in part: “If the state provides, directly or by contract, maternity care benefits, services, or information to women through any program administered or funded in whole or in part by the state, the state shall also provide women otherwise eligible for any such program with substantially equivalent benefits, services, or information to permit them to voluntarily terminate their pregnancies.”

The opinion applies to public hospital districts providing “benefits, services or information” covered by Initiative 120 “directly or by contract.” It does not apply to “purely private” health care institutions, but appears to apply to situations, such as in San Juan County, where the San Juan Island hospital district provides substantial funding for health care services to Peace Island medical center.

Local health care activist Monica Harrington termed the opinion “an important first step” - an opinion reiterated by the ACLU, which has long been active in the reproductive rights issue and has recently become active in issues involving hospital mergers with religion-based institutions, such as PeaceHealth.

The ACLU response to the AG opinion states: “It addresses only obligations to provide reproductive services covered by I-120, and does not address the obligations of private entities outside of the public hospital district context.”

Jim Barnhart, chief administrative officer of Peace Island Medical Center, said that "PeaceHealth is carefully considering the implications of the opinion and will have a full response in the near future."

Alison Shaw, practice administrator of Orcas Medical Center, said she has not yet reviewed the opinion.

Orcas Medical Center operates under a contract between the Orcas Medical Foundation, which owns the OMC building, and Island Hospital of Anacortes. Island Hospital, Skagit Valley Hospital and Cascade Valley Hospital, which are all operated by publicly supported hospital districts, are jointly exploring affiliation possibilities with four larger hospital systems, including PeaceHealth, Virgina Mason and UW Medical Centers.

 

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