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State allows Hoag Hospital to refuse elective abortions

The state attorney general's office has found that Newport Beach's Hoag Hospital can continue to refuse to provide elective abortions as long as the hospital helps women access those services elsewhere, according to an agreement announced Friday.

The agreement, approved by the state and Hoag last month, closes an investigation sparked by allegations that the hospital had misrepresented the effects of its partnership with a Catholic healthcare provider and was limiting women's access to a full array of reproductive health services.

"We spent several months investigating those allegations and negotiating with Hoag," Special Assistant Atty. Gen. Jill Habig said.

"The agreement addresses the concerns that were raised and takes several affirmative steps to ensure women's access to reproductive healthcare."

Last spring — not long after Hoag entered into an initial affiliation agreement with St. Joseph Health — Hoag officials announced that they would halt elective abortion services at the hospital.

At the time, officials said it was because of low demand for the procedure, although interviews and documents later showed that the move was actually a condition of Hoag's partnership with St. Joseph Health — whose statement of common values prohibits elective, or "direct," abortions.

The ban drew fierce protest from women's health advocates and Hoag doctors, who had said they had been told the partnership with St. Joseph would not require them to drop any services.

The ban, some providers said, inhibits their ability to give their patients the best care possible.

The move also stoked concerns about religion's role in a changing healthcare landscape, where a growing number of non-Catholic providers have merged or partnered with Catholic institutions.

As a result of the outcry, the state attorney general's office opened the investigation. The office also looked into whether Hoag officials were accurate in reporting that the hospital did fewer than 100 elective abortions each year.

Habig wouldn't confirm whether the investigation found that was accurate, saying that the agreement was forward-looking.

Its provisions include extending the time that Hoag must continue to provide all reproductive health services except elective abortions from 10 years to 20 years.

That means Hoag is forbidden to refuse to perform procedures that may conflict with St. Joseph's religious directives, such as tubal ligations, through 2033.

In a statement, Hoag President and Chief Executive Robert Braithwaite said the institution fully supported the agreement, which he described as a series of "clarifications of the original conditions" of its affiliation with St. Joseph.

The two nonprofit healthcare providers have maintained their own faith identities — Catholic and Presbyterian, respectively — and operate independently of one another.

When the partnership was started, officials said it would lead to broader, more integrated healthcare services in Orange County. St. Joseph Health operates five hospitals in Southern California, and Hoag has two hospitals and several clinics.

"We know our community will reap significant benefits from this affiliation," Braithwaite said. "We're excited to continue these efforts in a way that solves some of today's healthcare challenges and mitigates those we see in the future."

jill.cowan@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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