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Michael Hiltzik: University of California faces more pressure to shun healthcare deals with Catholic hospitals, as it should

Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

The heat is being turned up on the University of California to start dropping partnerships with hospital chains that place religious restrictions on healthcare.

It's about time. The issue of UC's complicity with religious limitations on women's reproductive healthcare, services for LGBTQ patients and end-of-life care has been simmering for nearly two years, or since UC San Francisco proposed expanding its affiliation with the Catholic hospital chain Dignity Health in 2019.

Two recent developments signal that the time for dithering may be coming to an end.

Last month, UC faculty members posted an open letter to university President Michael V. Drake, urging him to take a stand against affiliation agreements with institutions that restrict crucial health services for women and LGBTQ patients. The letter has attracted the signatures of some 2,500 UC faculty, students, alumni and staff.

And on Feb. 10, state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) introduced a bill barring UC from entering affiliations with entities that place "nonclinical" limitations on healthcare. In practice, that mostly means religious restrictions, though it also could cover limitations on services such as abortion imposed for political reasons or at the demand of community protesters or donors.

These two events pose a challenge for Drake, a medical doctor and former UC president for health affairs who succeeded Janet Napolitano as UC president last August. (In response to a request for comment from Drake, his office said that his "senior staff continue to carefully study the matter and to engage in robust discussions with stakeholders representing a variety of viewpoints.")

 

Some members of the UC healthcare community say that the university can't avoid affiliations with a variety of partners if it is to meet its obligations to treat medically underserved Californians and to relieve its own capacity constraints.

That may be so, but whether it means UC must accede to the standards of its outside partners is another question. The university is bound by the state Constitution to remain "entirely independent of all political or sectarian influence," a mandate arguably violated by acceptance of religious standards of medical care.

Religious and ideological encroachments on medical standards have been increasing in recent years.

As a UC committee examining its healthcare affiliations observed in 2019, "non-evidence-based policy restrictions on care that disproportionately impact women and LGBTQ+ people" have arisen from many sources. But the institutions imposing such restrictions "have mostly been affiliated with the Catholic Church."

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