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Dignity/ACH deal gets political

 Posted: 2:00 AM September 22, 2012

Two forums held last week to answer questions about a proposed "partnership" between Ashland Community Hospital and Dignity Health seemed to instead raise more questions about the future of the deal.

To no one's surprise, numerous questions were directed toward Dignity's stand on abortion and physician-assisted suicide. The answers did not satisfy many of those in attendance and raised yet another question: Is this a good fit for Ashland?

Credit to the Dignity Health representative's answers to questions about the two issues; she made it clear that Dignity Health's Catholic connections would place those two options largely off the table, at least as far as any direct hospital involvement is concerned.

The representative, Carol Bayley, was more forthcoming than hospital CEO Mark Marchetti was a day prior to the first forum, when he told the Daily Tidings that end-of-life care would not change if a partnership is formed with Dignity. Bayley, however, made it clear that physicians at Dignity-managed hospitals are not allowed to prescribe medication that induces death.

The hospital and its staff also would not participate in abortions, unless the mother's life were in danger.

Neither of those restrictions would greatly affect how the hospital is run, but it would foreclose future options to increase services in either area.

Dignity Health, formerly Catholic Healthcare West, is the nation's fifth-largest hospital system that now includes 40 hospitals, 150 care centers and about 65,000 employees. It won out over several other bidders, including the two Medford hospitals, when ACH started looking for suitors to help it shore up its financial position. The Ashland hospital recorded a $2.5 million loss in the last fiscal year.

The issue has taken on more political overtones as questions are raised — albeit by a fairly small number of people — about abortion and assisted suicide. It likely will get even more political: While the ACH board made the selection of Dignity Health, the final decision must also be approved by the Ashland City Council because the city holds the lease to the hospital property. The hospital was formerly a city department, but became a not-for-profit corporation in an 1996 agreement that established the lease.

So the big question facing the ACH board and the council is whether Dignity is a good fit for the community. There is no question that the relatively small hospital needs a financial partner, but the question remains whether Dignity is the right choice.

The ACH board selected Dignity from among five proposals by outside health organizations, including the parent companies of Providence Medford Medical Center (which also is Catholic-affiliated) and Rogue Regional Medical Center.

We don't know the particulars of the proposals, but if there's a close runner-up that wouldn't come with the same limitations, it may be wise for the hospital board to keep that option on the table. At some point, the political heat can make even the best of choices seem less palatable.

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