ACLU Sues for Complaints Filed Against Catholic Hospitals Denying Reproductive Care
A 2012 federal investigation of the Catholic-run St. John Hospital in Detroit found the hospital violated federal law by discharging a miscarrying patient who lost seven pints of blood while the facility refused for six hours to allow an emergency abortion because fetal tones were present.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is demanding the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) release complaints against federally funded Catholic hospitals, where patients report being denied emergency medical care in violation of federal law.
In a Freedom of Information Act suit filed Tuesday, the ACLU asked a federal court to force the CMS to hand over complaints alleging violations of the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act. CMS is charged with fielding complaints and investigating violations of the law, which requires federally funded hospitals to provide patients with the care required to stabilize a medical condition, such as a miscarriage.
A CMS spokesperson told Rewire in an email the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
Roughly one in six hospital beds are in a Catholic facility, with the top four U.S. Catholic health systems expected to take in more $90 billion from Medicare and Medicaid in 2016, according to the ACLU’s 10-page lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
Catholic hospitals follow religious directives, written by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, that forbid doctors at Catholic facilities from performing abortions unless the patient is in grave condition, among other restrictions.
“We’ve heard heartbreaking stories from women who rushed to a Catholic hospital in an emergency but were turned away because the hospital let religious rules written by bishops dictate what medical care could be provided,” said ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Brigitte Amiri in an emailed statement.
ACLU officials believe CMS is privy to a “number of complaints” alleging federal violations, according to the court filing. Amiri told Rewire in an email that the goal of the suit is to find out how many.
The lawsuit cites a series of complaints filed by patients who said they were denied emergency care for miscarriage in Catholic facilities. In one account, the hospital discharged a miscarrying patient, who later underwent emergency abortion care and treatment for major blood loss at another facility.
In another account, a woman miscarried alone on the toilet, after a Catholic hospital gave her Tylenol to treat a potentially deadly pregnancy-related infection and sent her home twice.
“It is crucial,” the court filing states, “that the requested documents are disclosed so that the public can ascertain whether hospitals receiving federal funds are violating federal laws designed to protect patient health and safety.”
ACLU filed its Freedom of Information Act request with CMS in 2014, but said it received no meaningful response. The ACLU requested, in part, five years of documents “relating to allegations of improper care, violations of [EMTALA], and violations of [CMS] regulation related to pregnancy-related treatment, including, but not limited to, treatment for miscarriage, abortion, and sterilization at hospitals receiving federal funds.”
CMS handed over a batch of documents as a response to the ACLU’s request. But the ACLU argues in its filing that the documents included no complaints related to miscarriage or abortion care.
Amiri told Rewire via email that the ACLU knows of specific miscarriage-related complaints that CMS failed to turn over.
In a statement announcing the lawsuit, the ACLU said it has used complaints to take legal action against Catholic providers, including a lawsuit filed against Trinity Health, the second largest Catholic hospital system in the country.
“With one in six hospital beds in facilities that are bound by the Catholic Directives, we expect there are more stories that will come to the surface,” Amiri told Rewire.
CMS in its own investigations has turned up wrongdoing on the part of Catholic hospitals, according to the ACLU court filing.
A 2012 investigation by CMS of the Catholic-run St. John Hospital in Detroit found the hospital violated federal law by discharging a miscarrying patient who lost seven pints of blood while the facility refused for six hours to allow an emergency termination because fetal tones were present. A family member drove the patient to another facility for an emergency abortion.
Responding to the investigation, a St. John Hospital staff member told CMS: “We are a Catholic institution and we do not perform abortions here if there are fetal heart tones.”
The court filing doesn’t say whether the hospital was sanctioned for violating the law.
Tuesday’s lawsuit is one of many the ACLU has filed over Catholic directives.
California’s largest medical association announced last month that it will join an ACLU lawsuit against the the state’s largest hospital system, Dignity Health, for using religious directives to deny basic reproductive health care to patients. A court hearing is expected Wednesday.