A new bill making its way through the California legislature would effectively end partnerships between Catholic hospitals and the state’s fourth largest health system, University of California Health, causing “tens of thousands of patients” — especially low-income patients — to lose care.
SB 379, The Equitable and Inclusive UC Healthcare Act, was introduced by Democratic Senator Scott Wiener of San Francisco. The National Catholic Register reported that the legislation, which was co-sponsored by NARAL Pro-Choice California, Equality California, and the ACLU of California — but is opposed by the California Hospital Association — would specifically “prohibit the University of California Health System from having contracts with health care providers with restrictions on procedures, such as elective abortions and sterilizations, that UC employees can perform.”
In the press release announcing the bill’s April 27th passage out of committee, Sen. Wiener’s office claimed that “UC Health has entered into contracts with other hospitals that subject UC providers to harmful non-clinical restrictions limiting the kinds of services they provide to patients. SB 379 ensures that, moving forward, UC Health affiliate hospitals will allow UC providers to perform the full range of appropriate care.”
The “harmful non-clinic restrictions” Wiener’s office refers to include Catholic healthcare systems’ refusal to allow abortions or physician-assisted suicides within their facilities, including the facilities they maintain in partnership with UC Health. Wiener’s office insists, “California law recognizes reproductive healthcare, including abortion, as basic healthcare.”
The press release notes, “California state law restricts public health entities from preferring one pregnancy outcome over another.”
While any mention of the practical implications of passing SB 379 for the average Californian is conspicuously absent from Sen. Wiener’s press release, the National Catholic Register and San Francisco Chronicle fill in the details. According to the Chronicle, “UC says it has contracts to provide treatment or training at 77 hospitals and other health facilities in California with policies that Wiener’s bill would affect.” The Register observed that on a practical level, partnerships between UC Health and Catholic healthcare systems across the state make sense because, “In some places, the contracts allow patients to be moved between hospitals to alleviate overcrowding or make room for patients who need more critical care.”
Catholic hospitals provide training and residency sites for many UC Health students, including med school students. Catholic hospitals also collaborate with UC Health to provide specialty care for thousands of Californians.
The Register also notes that the state’s largest Catholic hospital network, Dignity Health, collaborates with UCLA to run a cancer treatment center that cared for 8,500 patients in 2019. The same Dignity Health hospital that co-managed the cancer treatment center also runs a pediatric trauma center that served 700 patients that same year. Other impacted healthcare facilities include “a cleft palate center, post-transplant care, pediatric and neonatal surgery” as well as a cancer treatment facility that serves 12,000 people each year, plus San Francisco’s only inpatient adolescent psychiatry program.
Already, plans to increase pediatric services in northern California through a partnership between UC Davis and Catholic hospitals have been put on hold because of the pending legislation.
Shelly Schlenker, vice president of Dignity Health’s parent organization CommonSpirit Health, decried the legislation, saying that it would “devastate the Medi-Cal safety net, which is a lifeline for our most vulnerable residents” and “end partnerships that save lives.” She summarized that “Under SB 379, no one wins and everyone loses.”
While UC Health has not taken an official stance on the legislation, UC Health’s Executive Vice President Dr. Carrie Byington observed that “low-income and rural communities and people of color” would be dramatically negatively effected if the legislation is passed, and that some of those effects would be “life-threatening” and would “exacerbate health disparities.” She maintained, “We cannot abandon the tens of thousands of patients and families in 77 locations with non-federal restrictions across the state whose lives depend on the high-quality care UC provides.”
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