Dec 12, 2012

More trouble on the religion-and-healthcare front.

Yesterday my colleague Simon Brown told you about a worrisome development in Austin where the University of Texas is planning to train medical school students at a Catholic-run teaching hospital. Some folks are concerned that Catholic doctrinal mandates will interfere with sound medical training.

Now a similarly problematic situation is emerging again in Louisville.

Last year, Americans United and others protested loudly when officials were planning to merge a University of Louisville-affiliated hospital with a Catholic-controlled healthcare agency. We argued that a public institution should never be brought under sectarian domination.

Attorney General Jack Conway agreed, and Gov. Steve Beshear derailed the deal.

Now, however, University Hospital officials are entering a “partnership” with KentuckyOne Health, a company controlled by Catholic Health Initiatives, and that has many people worried anew.

According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, a growing controversy centers on an “academic affiliation agreement” that spells out how teaching and research will be handled.

The newspaper said the agreement leaves matters affecting teaching and research solely in the hands of the University, but KentuckyOne will operate all areas of University Hospital except for its Center for Women and Infants and its pharmacy.

Reporter Laura Ungar says Kentucky­One-managed areas will serve as the “principal adult teaching hospital,” but doctors and faculty won’t be bound by Catholic Ethical and Religious Directives in those areas. They will, however, be asked to “respect” the directives.

Hmmm. That raises some serious church-state questions.

As the Courier-Journal noted, that kind of wording concerns those who think it might restrict research in areas such as embryonic stem cells or contraception and hinder teaching programs.

Observed Alex Luchenitser, Americans United’s associate legal director, “Will your doctors and medical students have the same opportunities to do research and learn about the procedures banned by Catholic directives? It’s a troubling arrangement.”

Other critics say the proposed deal surrenders too much control to KentuckyOne.

Beverly Glascock, a lawyer and former nurse, told the newspaper, “The university has given up or abdicated its academic and research roles in the contract to KentuckyOne without getting that much back in return. I don’t see anything being done in this contract that only benefits the university.”

Sheila Reynertson, a staff member at the New York-based MergerWatch Project, said she is worried about who will set the research agenda.

“What is the role of (Catholic Health Initiatives) in determining research priorities at University?” she asked.

Added Reynertson, “It sounds like Kentucky­One’s got the purse strings here…. It’s a business move. In terms of protecting the public entity, it’s pretty sticky.”

Sticky, indeed.

To make matters more complicated, this time Gov. Beshear and Attorney General Conway have signed off on the pending agreement.

Kentuckians who care about church-state separation – and healthcare conducted in the public interest, not a sectarian agenda – have every reason to be concerned.