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Outcry Over Catholic Rules May Quash Health System’s Bid for Chicago Taxpayer Funds

Amy Littlefield

One in six hospital beds nationwide is in a hospital that follows Catholic directives. In Illinois, that number is closer to one in three. In some states, more than 40 percent of hospital beds are in facilities operating under Catholic restrictions.

A Catholic health system that sought $5.5 million in Chicago taxpayer funds to expand its operations is facing opposition over its restrictions on reproductive health care.

Presence Health requested a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) subsidy it says would be used to build a cancer center, as DNAinfo reported. But the Community Development Commission this week shelved plans to advance the funding amid concern over the system’s adherence to directives issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The directives, followed by Catholic facilities across the country, inhibit access to an array of care, including contraception, abortion care, and gender-affirming surgery.

“I was really pleased that they pulled it and I think it’s a good, clear-cut sign that public funds shouldn’t be used to discriminate against women who want access to reproductive care,” Chicago Alderman Deb Mell told Rewire.

Alderman Brendan Reilly, whose ward the money would come from, has rescinded his letter of support for the funding, according to DNAinfo.

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“In essence, this institution is asking for our tax dollars to support its overall mission, which includes its policies governing patient care and access to contraceptive and reproductive health services,” Reilly reportedly said in a statement. “I have very serious concerns about the city of Chicago and its taxpayers subsidizing Presence Health and their policy that restricts their patients’ access to reproductive freedom, contraceptive care and services.”

Catholic health systems receive tens of billions in taxpayer funds annually through reimbursements from Medicare and Medicaid alone.

Presence Health was founded in 2011 by the merger of two Catholic health systems, Provena Health and Resurrection Health Care. It’s the largest Catholic health system based in Illinois, with more than 150 care sites, including 12 hospitals, according to its website.

“Throughout the state of Illinois, our hospital system is the largest provider of much needed Behavioral Health services and cares for more underprivileged Medicaid patients than any other health system,” Dougal Hewitt, Presence Health chief officer for mission & external affairs, said in a statement to Rewire.

Hewitt said Presence believes it will obtain the TIF funding, which it will use “to build a cancer center intended to help the underserved and most vulnerable on Chicago’s West and South sides.”

In its statement opposing the subsidy, Chicago National Organization for Women (NOW) cited Presence Health’s “incredible reach” in the city.

“As care providers like Presence, who do not provide contraceptives or other key reproductive health procedures, take up more and more space in our healthcare system, options for people seeking what is a natural and sometimes necessary part of their healthcare become fewer and fewer,” Chicago NOW said.

Christina Tanner, a Chicago NOW board member and certified nurse midwife, says religious restrictions can disproportionately impact uninsured and low-income patients who may have a tougher time making it to see another provider if a religious institution denies them contraception.

“I don’t object to building a cancer center, I object to the organization building the cancer center,” Tanner told Rewire in a phone interview.You could find another health-care organization that could build a cancer center that provides care to everyone without discriminating based on gender.”

Mell said she withdrew her support for a clinic Presence Health had considered building in her ward after finding out about the religious directives. “I’ve stopped it in my ward, I know that,” Mell said.

One in six hospital beds nationwide is in a hospital that follows Catholic directives. In Illinois, that number is closer to one in three. In some states, more than 40 percent of hospital beds are in facilities operating under Catholic restrictions.

Rewire recently reported on the case of Melanie Jones, who said a doctor refused to remove her dislodged IUD, citing Catholic restrictions followed by Chicago-based Mercy Hospital and Medical Center and providers within its system. The ACLU has documented multiple other cases, including that of Mindy Swank, who said she was denied abortion care at a Catholic hospital in Illinois after her water broke prematurely at 20 weeks and it was determined her fetus could not survive. After she woke up bleeding about two weeks later, she was refused care at another hospital that also followed the Catholic directives. Swank returned multiple times, but it wasn’t until she was 27 weeks pregnant and severely hemorrhaging that the hospital finally induced labor.

In another case, Angela Valavanis, who wanted her tubes tied after her cesarean section, did not learn until after she had been in labor for three days and was being wheeled in for surgery that her OB/GYN was banned from performing the tubal ligation at Presence Saint Francis Hospital in Evanston, Illinois, which is part of Presence Health.

The ACLU of Illinois advocated for a change to state law to address such denials of care. The bill, which was signed July 29 by Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R), requires providers who object to providing services on religious grounds to give patients information about all of their treatment options, as well as referrals or information about where they may be able to get care.

Starting January 1, Presence Health and all health-care providers in Illinois will be required to provide comprehensive birth control options counseling, even if they don’t provide birth control.

“It’s our position that when it comes to the provision of health care in hospitals, medical standards and patient needs should be the guide, and not the religion of the providers or the institutions,” Jenna Prochaska, staff attorney with the ACLU of Illinois, told Rewire. 

Tanner of Chicago NOW hopes the discussion over funding for Presence Health will help raise awareness about the influence of religion on health care.

“I wonder sometimes if people are really aware of some of the rules behind these Catholic health-care organizations,” Tanner said.

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