US sued for complete record of complaints filed against Catholic hospitals

© Brendan McDermid
The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the federal government for access to a complete record of complaints submitted against Catholic-affiliated hospitals that have refused to offer emergency care to women experiencing miscarriages.

Medical staffs at Catholic hospitals in the US have put Catholic Church directives against abortion and other reproductive treatment over the emergency needs of pregnant women experiencing miscarriages or serious pregnancy-related complications, the ACLU says.

"Hospitals violate the law when they refuse to provide emergency medical care or provide information about a patient’s condition," wrote Brigitte Amiri, of the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project.

Amiri wrote of the "increasingly common story" of one pregnant woman who was rushed to a Catholic hospital with major complications that required an abortion. The hospital's medical staff, however, refused to provide an abortion based on rules dictated by the Catholic Church, keeping the woman for six hours while she bled. She was only discharged when a relative arrived to drive her to another hospital. She needed seven pints of blood and emergency surgery on arrival, the ACLU said.

"The federal government should systematically investigate Catholic hospitals and hold them accountable," Amiri wrote. "No woman should rush to the hospital and fear for her life because of religious rules that force hospitals to turn patients away without providing the proper care."

In 2014, the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for comprehensive information regarding complaints against Catholic hospitals that have been sent to the US Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency that has oversight of hospitals. That request yielded nothing, the ACLU says.

Now, the ACLU has filed a FOIA lawsuit to compel the federal government to reveal any documents related to complaints against Catholic hospitals or medical facilities, which receive "billions of taxpayer dollars to serve the public," the group said.

One in six hospital beds in the US are owned by a medical center or hospital that follows Catholic directives that restrict certain kinds of reproductive care, the organization said.

The number of American hospitals either owned or affiliated with Catholic health organizations is on the rise, according to a recent report by MergerWatch, which was assisted by the ACLU. There are 548 Catholic-owned or -affiliated hospitals in the US, which account for about 14.5 percent of all short-term acute care facilities in the country, the report found. There were 449 such facilities in 2001.

In its own report, the ACLU criticized the policies of these hospitals, saying they deny women treatment even in cases where their lives may be in danger, despite receiving billions in taxpayer dollars. The ACLU urged the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to release a statement reiterating that all hospitals must provide emergency reproductive health care regardless of their religious affiliation. It also wants to see the agency investigate Catholic hospitals for possible violations of federal law, and calls for legislative changes to ensure women can receive the treatment they want.

Last week, the US Supreme Court decided against a decision in a case that challenges the contraception mandate in employer-provided health insurance plans as outlined in the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. The challenge to the mandate was lodged by several religiously-affiliated nonprofits, including hospitals and universities, that argue the requirement, as well as an accommodation offered by the Obama administration, violated their religious beliefs. The Supreme Court sent the case back to lower courts for resolution.