Jun 22, 2022 - Politics

Democrats seek to stop hospital mergers that limit abortion access

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Democrats in Washington state want new authority to block mergers involving faith-based hospitals if those deals would limit abortion access.

Why it matters: Now that the U.S. Supreme Court appears poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, Gov. Jay Inslee and other Democrats say ensuring people can access abortion is more important than ever.

State of play: Although Washington voters have embedded abortion protections in state law, religiously affiliated hospitals can still choose not to provide abortion services.

  • This year's Senate Bill 5688 aimed to give the state attorney general the power to block hospital mergers if they would limit access to abortion care, gender-affirming health care or physician-assisted suicide.
  • While the bill failed to pass in the 2022 legislative session, Inslee said he wants to see the measure move forward next year.

What they're saying: "It doesn't do you a lot of good if you have the legal protection — if you are safe from the Republican Party and the Supreme Court — but there's no one to provide the service," Inslee told Axios in an interview last week.

Flashback: At least two recent hospital mergers in the state have led to changes in the availability of abortion.

  • When Tacoma-based CHI Franciscan, a Catholic-run hospital system, merged with Virginia Mason in January 2021, Virginia Mason leaders said they would stop performing elective pregnancy terminations.
  • Swedish Medical Center similarly ceased performing abortions after becoming affiliated with Providence Health & Services in 2012.
  • Even before the CHI Franciscan and Virginia Mason deal became final, about 41% of hospital beds in Washington state were located at religious-affiliated hospitals, according to a report from the nonprofit MergerWatch.

The other side: Opponents of SB 5688 said the bill would impose onerous requirements that would hinder small medical providers' ability to partner with larger systems, making it harder for them to stay afloat.

  • "This bill would stop almost all health care transactions, even those that benefit communities," said Douglas Ross, a law instructor at the University of Washington, during a Jan. 18 public hearing.

A spokesperson for Virginia Mason Franciscan Health, the organization formed through last year's merger, said it always provides medically necessary care for pregnant women, "even if it results in the termination of a pregnancy."

  • But in an email to Axios, the spokesperson did not share the nonprofit's position on the legislation.

What's next: The sponsor of SB 5688, state Sen. Emily Randall (D-Bremerton), said she's preparing to reintroduce the measure for the new legislative session that starts in January 2023.

  • The bill died in the Senate Law and Justice Committee this year.
  • But that committee's chair, state Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-Redmond), told Axios she thinks there's "definitely a path forward."
  • "This has been an urgent matter to me in the past two to three years," Dhingra told Axios this week.
  • Dhingra and Randall said they are also are looking at ways to protect Washington doctors from the reach of other laws that seek to criminalize abortion.
  • State officials expect an influx of abortion patients coming from out of state, and are looking at legislation to protect those patients from legal liability as well, Dhingra said.

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