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Report Shows Religious Hospitals Fail to Disclose Banned Services

(Washington, DC; 12/11/03)  The National Women's Law Center (NWLC) has released a guide for advocates and consumers focusing on getting health care institutions reveal the services they will not perform because of religious or moral objections.  Some of the largest health care systems are religiously affiliated, yet most consumers are unaware that these institutions may prohibit certain treatments or services as a result.  Truth or Consequences: Using Consumer Protection Laws to Expose Institutional Restrictions on Reproductive and Other Health Care arms consumers with knowledge of the laws that cover disclosure requirements and strategies to encourage institutions to provide appropriate notice to the community.

The ban on services at many religiously affiliated hospitals, nursing homes, managed care companies and insurers go beyond abortions, extending to other arenas of health to include: end-of-life-treatments; research and therapy using fetal and embryonic stem cells; counseling about the use of condoms by HIV patients (and other patients with sexually transmitted diseases); certain infertility treatments; emergency contraception (including for rape victims); certain treatment of ectopic pregnancies; tubal ligations (and other forms of sterilization); and contraceptive services (including contraceptive prescriptions) and counseling.

While religiously-affiliated health care institutions can restrict services in certain circumstances, they must warn consumers in a clear, accurate and timely way or face legal sanctions.  However, health care consumers are often unaware of these limitations because facilities provide little  notice or information about the restrictions, often marketing themselves as providing comprehensive women's health services when they in fact do not.

"Refusing to inform patients and communities about bans on important medical procedures makes bad medicine, bad community relations, and often violates the law," said Marcia D. Greenberger, NWLC Co-President.  "These religious restrictions are widespread and have serious consequences for women's health.  Advocates can use these consumer protection laws to fight back."

In a nationwide survey cited in the report, nearly half of the 1,000 respondents said they believed they would be able to get medical services that may go against Catholic teaching at a Catholic hospital.  Less than seven percent were able to identify restricted services such as emergency contraception, sterilization or infertility treatment.  Women's health care is threatened when they must make decisions about their care without knowing about these restrictions.  For example, pregnant women who may want to have a tubal ligation during the same hospital stay as delivery might not select a doctor who only has privileges at a hospital that prohibits that practice.

Although there are other types of entities that impose restrictions on health care because institutional and or moral objections, Catholic entities usually impose the most rigid limitations on women's reproductive and other health services, often failing to share information with patients on treatment alternatives and referrals that go against church teachings.  Catholic health care entities also have a substantial role in this country's health care system.  Five of the ten largest health care systems are Catholic-owned.  And in many rural areas, Catholic hospitals are often the sole health care providers.  Also, Catholic health care entities usually impose bans on nonsectarian institutions that merge or affiliate with them, resulting in non-Catholic entities agreeing to comply with religious restrictions.  As a consequence, key women's reproductive and other health services may be eliminated for a community with little or no notice to patients and consumers.

"What is shocking is the silence surrounding these restrictions," said Elena N. Cohen, NWLC senior counsel and coauthor of Truth or Consequences.  "Unfortunately, many women only learn about these restrictions when they are faced with urgent health care decisions, not when they are planning their care. We trust and expect our health care institutions to provide quality health care and not mislead the public about the scope of their services.   Failing to inform patients about restrictions in a timely manner or not at all is a gross betrayal of public trust."

Truth or Consequences gives advocates tools they to improve communication between the health care industry and its customers.  NWLC has developed a number of legal tools that have been used to reduce the negative impact of religious restrictions, but legal theories based on consumer protection law is a new way for advocates to protect health care consumers' rights.  Truth or Consequences describes different types of laws that advocates can use to mount a challenge to the notice practices of hospitals, nursing homes, HMOs and insurers; strategies to expose religious restrictions; government agencies that enforce consumer protection laws; and examples of where advocates have been successful.

For a copy of the report or more information on the Center's ongoing campaign to develop new legal strategies and work with state and local advocates to protect women's health services, click here.

The National Women's Law Center is a non-profit organization that has been working since 1972 to advance and protect women's legal rights.  NWLC focuses on major policy areas of importance to women and their families including health, education, employment, and economic security, with special attention given to the concerns of low-income women.

Created: 12/11/2003  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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