End-of-Life Choice, Palliative Care and Counseling

Advocates Hail Hospital’s End to Talks With “Ex-Catholic” Chainby Jay

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Compassion & Choices, the nation’s oldest and largest nonprofit organization working to improve care and expand choice at the end of life, today applauded the decision by an Oregon hospital to end negotiations with a chain over questions about patient choice. When Ashland Community Hospital (ACH) entered talks with Dignity Health — formerly Catholic Healthcare West — Compassion & Choices, local doctors and patient advocates questioned whether the chain would impose religious restrictions on ACH. Advocates for choice at the end of life repeatedly sought assurances the hospital would continue to preserve and protect terminally ill Oregonians’ rights under the Oregon Death with Dignity Act.

In January, Dignity Health changed its name and its affiliation with the Catholic Church, and is no longer a sponsored ministry of the church. However, 25 of Dignity’s 40 hospitals remain Catholic-affiliated; its secular hospitals, for “guidance and moral foundation,” follow a Statement of Common Values. It reads: “Death is a sacred part of life’s journey; we will intentionally neither hasten nor delay it. For this reason, physician-assisted suicide is not part of Dignity Health’s mission.”

In September, The Medford Mail Tribune reported, “When Mayor John Stromberg asked whether this statement’s rules could be eliminated for ACH, Dignity’s spokeswoman said, ‘As far as loosening it, don’t hold out hope. We have our feet in Catholic mud, there is no denying it.’”

“Compassion & Choices led this fight to test the extent Dignity was willing to put best medical practice and informed patient choice ahead of the dictates of the bishops,” said Barbara Coombs Lee, Compassion & Choices’ president. “This was Dignity’s first expansion into a state with affirmative protection for aid in dying. We learned that the rebranding was not matched by real change that would bring this major healthcare corporation in line with the standards of patient choice Oregon residents have come to expect.”

The conflict between an Oregonian’s right to access aid in dying and the restrictions imposed in Catholic healthcare settings has been clear throughout the 14 years the law has been in effect. Community members expressed concerns that the merger not interfere with the ability of doctors who practice at ACH to write prescriptions or provide other medical functions under the Death with Dignity Act. “Bishops in Oregon use the machinery of Catholic healthcare to violate informed consent principles and withhold information about aid in dying, a legal end-of-life choice,” said Jason Renaud, executive director of Compassion & Choices Oregon. “Catholic hospitals, hospices and healthcare systems in Oregon instruct their employees to deprive their patients of comprehensive knowledge of end-of-life choices. We called upon Dignity Health to explicitly and completely answer this concern, to inform the Ashland City Council and the people of the area. Opposition to the merger intensified when Dignity failed to answer.”