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Originally published May 26, 2013 at 5:38 PM | Page modified May 26, 2013 at 9:17 PM

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UW Medicine tries to calm critics of link to Catholic health system

Officials of UW Medicine, caught off guard by concerns about a plan to affiliate with a Catholic health-care system, are trying to assure critics that patient choices will not be restricted.

Seattle Times health reporter

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Leaders of UW Medicine, surprised by a barrage of criticism over a plan to affiliate with a Catholic system, are attempting to assure critics that the arrangement would not limit its services, particularly reproductive care or end-of-life services barred by Catholic ethical directives.

In a letter to UW Medicine board members late last week, Dr. Paul Ramsey, CEO of UW Medicine and dean of the University of Washington School of Medicine, referred to confusion over the proposal.

In the letter, which was quickly circulated among UW hospitals and employees, Ramsey said the planned “strategic affiliation” with PeaceHealth, a three-state system founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, was “not like the merger of Providence (Health & Services) and Swedish (Medical Center), under which Providence is now responsible for the governance of Swedish.”

Instead, he said, the UW-PeaceHealth arrangement would simply provide a more seamless referral network for PeaceHealth patients with complicated health issues to get care at UW Medicine, which includes the University of Washington and Harborview medical centers, Northwest Hospital & Medical Center and Valley Medical Center.

The proposed plan, which has not yet been formalized, “will be designed to build programs in rural communities that would increase the range of care available to patients close to home,” Ramsey said.

Peter Adler, chief strategy officer for PeaceHealth, said the UW Medicine-PeaceHealth affiliation would bring a full continuum of care, from primary to extremely complex, to more people in the region.

In a Q & A, UW Medicine said both it and PeaceHealth are transforming to become accountable care organizations, the HMO-like arrangements allowed by the new federal health law to give providers incentives for coordination of care and cost control.

Since the plan was announced May 20, critics of the arrangement, which comes amid a series of Catholic-secular health system affiliations, have contacted the UW alumni association, the School of Medicine and the office of Gov. Jay Inslee, who noted his concern about religious-secular mergers last week.

Some critics said they remain concerned that while the arrangement would help provide complex care at UW Medicine for PeaceHealth patients, those in rural communities where PeaceHealth is the sole health system still won’t be able to access reproductive and end-of-life options barred by Catholic directives.

Monica Harrington, a part-time resident of San Juan Island who became concerned when PeaceHealth forged a deal with the public hospital district to build a hospital in Friday Harbor, said the UW affiliation wouldn’t help PeaceHealth patients if the UW doesn’t bring them local access to reproductive and end-of-life care.

“As a Catholic institution with a religious mission, PeaceHealth restricts a myriad of health services that conflict with Catholic doctrine and promotes a belief system that most Washingtonians don’t share,” she said. “UW resources should not and cannot be used to advance a religious mission or fuel the expansion of religiously restricted care.”

Another critic, Mary Kay Barbieri, urged UW Medicine to delete a provision in the letter of intent to affiliate pledging that shared clinical programs jointly developed would be consistent with each organization’s values.

The ACLU of Washington has indicated concern that religious-secular affiliations may violate state constitution restrictions on use of tax funds.

“Over the next several months, this deal should get appropriate scrutiny by the (UW) regents and state leaders because there are serious constitutional, taxpayer and patient-rights issues at stake,” Harrington said.

In his letter, Ramsey said the relationship “will not change the UW Medicine mission, our values or any of the clinical services we provide, nor limit the UW Medicine services available to any patient.”

Another issue raised by critics and addressed in the Q & A is whether the arrangement would mean that medical students or residents would train in PeaceHealth hospitals governed by Catholic directives.

Johnese Spisso, UW Medicine’s chief health-system officer, said in an interview that the School of Medicine already has clinical teaching arrangements with many hospitals and clinics across the region, including those of PeaceHealth.

But trainees don’t stay at one hospital or clinic, and rotate through a variety of facilities, she said, including Planned Parenthood. “We have a requirement to do the full scope of training,” she said. “We would maintain our training sites in all the areas.”

Carol M. Ostrom: costrom@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2249. On Twitter @costrom

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