UCSF Rejects Proposed Expansion of Care with Catholic Provider Dignity Health

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UC San Francisco Chancellor Sam Hawgood announced on May 28 that UCSF Health will cancel the expansion of its affiliation with Dignity Health, a Bay Area Catholic healthcare provider, after much deliberation. It will continue with its current affiliation.

Many members of the local community in the Bay Area raised concerns over how Dignity Health’s adherence to religious directives could impact treatment for women and the LGBTQIA+ community. Others believed that the expansion was necessary to meet the healthcare needs of the Bay Area.

“Given the concerns, we will not continue to pursue the affiliation as it had been envisioned, which would have created a stronger link between UCSF Health and Dignity Health’s four Bay Area hospitals,” Hawgood said in his statement.

The Americans United for the Separation of Church and State filed grievances with both UCSF and the UC Regents arguing that the proposed affiliation would “violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Religious organizations must not be allowed to decide what care is provided to UCSF’s patients.”

Dignity Health hospitals, as per the Catholic Church’s beliefs, cannot perform elective abortions, in vitro fertilization, or physician-assisted suicide. This directly challenges the values of UCSF, and by extension the UC system, in providing unbiased and comprehensive healthcare. Over 1,600 UCSF physicians, faculty, and hospital employees have signed a petition that opposes this continued expansion.

The petition argues that this affiliation “with Dignity/CHI not only compromises the safety and quality of our patient care, but also threatens the integrity of our reputation as a provider of evidence-based care in an inclusive environment free of bias and discrimination.”

Lieutenant Governor of California and UC Regent Eleni Kounalakis issued an official response on May 17 about the concerns this affiliation poses. “As someone who will never compromise when it comes to the rights of women and LGBTQ people, I will oppose any kind of partnership that would openly discriminate against these groups, or restrict their access to health care.”

There are two remaining lawsuits filed against Dignity Health by plaintiffs who were denied certain procedures at these facilities. One such case, Minton v. Dignity Health, involves the denial of a hysterectomy procedure for Minton, a UC Riverside alumnus and transgender man, on the grounds of his self-identification. This is only one instance in which the Catholic Church’s decree has interfered with the treatment of patients.

Minton was one of the 147 people who signed up for public comment regarding this merger. He, along with many others, were concerned with care and potential discrimination. Joshua Stickney, with advocacy group Equality California, commented: “From transgender students and employees to those who may seek reproductive care like contraception, abortion, and HIV prevention medication, it would be unconscionable to limit their access to medically necessary, and in some cases, life-saving services.”

Another lawsuit making its way through the system was filed by Rebecca Chamorro. Chamorro scheduled a tubal ligation following the cesarean section for her third child in 2016. Hospital Management denied the request for the procedure, stating “your request … does not meet the requirement of Mercy’s current sterilization policy or the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Services.”

UCSF Health CEO Mark Laret, in response to legal concerns about such an expansion prior to the decision, argued that this collaboration was necessary to remedy overcrowding and supplement revenue lost through MediCal and Medicare. Laret argues that physicians will be afforded the latitude to discuss these procedures. This, however, did not ease those with concerns over the treatments that would be provided in these facilities.

“My wife had to leave this state so she would have this option,” Dan Diaz, whose wife ended her life medically in 2014, said. “It would be shocking if now, in a state that has passed medical aid-in-dying, where a patient would not be able to have these conversations and pursue medical aid-in-dying here at UCSF.”

This affiliation comes at a time when reproductive rights are being challenged at both the national level and the UC level. In 2017, Senator Connie Leyva  introduced SB 320 to the California State Legislature, which Governor Brown vetoed last year; Leyva reintroduced the bill as SB 24 in 2019. SB 24 would require the UC and California State University (CSU) systems to provide the medication for a medical abortion via campus health facilities by 2022.

UCSF plans to find other methods to meet patient needs in ways that do not compromise women’s, LGBTQIA+, and end-of-life care.

Sahana Narayan is a Staff Writer for The Triton. News Editor Orianna Borrelli contributed to the research and writing for this article.