Catholic Health Initiatives’ Gag Orders Illegally Interfere with Physician Judgment, Patient Care

The following press release was issued today by the ACLU of Colorado.  It describes a situation in Denver where a Catholic hospital run by Catholic Health Initiatives, the parent org of Franciscan Health in Washington State, is illegally imposing gag orders on its physicians, interfering with their ability to provide appropriate medical care even when a woman’s life is in danger.

We know from patient stories here in Washington that women are being denied appropriate medical care.  Normally these policies are implemented behind the scenes so that patients and regulators have no idea they’re in effect.  What’s different in Colorado is that the medical director wrote a letter actually describing the policy that’s in effect, which is to require doctors to never recommend abortion  “even to patients who may have serious illnesses.”

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DENVER – Mercy Regional Medical Center, a Catholic hospital in Durango, is violating state and federal law by prohibiting physicians from discussing the option of pregnancy termination even when continuing the pregnancy threatens a patient’s life, according to a complaint the ACLU sent today to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

The ACLU’s letter asks the Colorado agency to investigate and intervene to stop the facility, which serves as the sole community hospital in the area, from enforcing its policy and inappropriately interfering with its physicians’ practice of medicine.

“When the medical standard of care would recommend termination, the hospital is inappropriately forcing staff physicians to choose between obeying their employer or following their professional medical and ethical obligations to their patients,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU Legal Director.  “Moreover, following the hospital’s directive deprives patients of the full information they need to make informed decisions about their medical care.”

The ACLU cited the case of Dr. Michael Demos, who has practiced cardiology for 36 years and has been working as a staff cardiologist at Mercy Regional since 2005.  In early 2012, his initial medical assessment of an 8 week pregnant patient suggested the possibility of Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that can pose a 90% risk of death for pregnant women.   In recommending a test to confirm or rule out the suspected condition, Dr. Demos also explained that the standard of care would be to recommend termination of the pregnancy if Marfan syndrome were confirmed.  As it turned out, the test was negative, and the patient successfully carried the pregnancy to term.

More than a year later, the patient complained, thinking in error that hospital staff had recommended abortion.  The hospital’s Chief Medical Officer, John Boyd, M.D., responded with a letter stating that pursuant to the Catholic Ethical and Religious Directives, hospital medical providers “should not recommend abortion—even to patients who may have serious illnesses.”  Dr. Boyd also met with Dr. Demos and instructed him that he is not to even discuss with a Mercy Regional patient the possibility of terminating a pregnancy, no matter what the circumstances.

A Colorado statute explicitly prohibits hospitals from limiting or otherwise exercising control over a physician’s independent professional judgment concerning the practice of medicine or diagnosis or treatment.   Additionally, federal regulations require hospitals that participate in Medicare and Medicaid to ensure that patients receive sufficient information to make informed decisions about their treatment options.

“By prohibiting physicians from informing patients of all alternative treatment options, Mercy Regional’s policy violates state and federal law and poses a potential threat to the health, safety, and even the lives of Mercy Regional patients,” Silverstein said.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment sets and enforces standards for hospital operation.  The ACLU has requested a response to its complaint by November 27.

For more information, visit the case page:

http://aclu-co.org/sites/default/files/2013-11-13%20CDPHE-Rich.pdf

For the ACLU’s letter to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment:

http://aclu-co.org/sites/default/files/2013-11-13%20CDPHE-Rich.pdf

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The ACLU of Colorado is the state’s oldest civil rights organization, protecting and defending the civil rights of all Coloradans through litigation, education and advocacy.

Media Contacts:
Mark Silverstein, Legal Director

720.402.3114

John Krieger, Communications Director
720.402.3111/303.653.6246

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One thought on “Catholic Health Initiatives’ Gag Orders Illegally Interfere with Physician Judgment, Patient Care

  1. KAC

    Having some knowledge of both the facility and the individuals involved, this is not even slightly surprising news. It is worth emphasizing that Mercy is de facto the exclusive provider of health care services for the county, much of the (remote) Four Corners region and for the Southern Ute Indians. What will be surprising is the State of Colorado taking action, censuring the hospital, the involved administrator and the entity whose policy was invoked to the detriment of medical and professional ethics.

    Reply

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