Walgreens' Catholic-Run Store Clinics Worry ACLU

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By Paul Shukovsky

Dec. 16 — The American Civil Liberties Union's Washington and Oregon affiliates joined with 17 other nongovernmental organizations Dec. 14 in asking Walgreens whether religious doctrine will limit access to services such as reproductive care at 25 planned, in-store clinics to be operated by Providence Health & Services, a Catholic health system.

Walgreens and Providence—which bills itself as the third largest not-for-profit health system in the U.S. with operations in Alaska, California, Montana, Oregon and Washington—plan to open the Express Care clinics in February in Oregon and Washington.

The ACLU—along with abortion rights, gay rights, AIDS advocacy groups, Planned Parenthood and an assisted suicide organization—sent an e-mail Dec. 14 to Walgreens saying: “As Providence is a religious health system, we are very concerned that these clinics will limit patients’ access to important health services. Customers or patients who request services at these clinics or at Walgreens pharmacies are entitled to assurances that the services, information, and referrals they receive will not be restricted by religious doctrine.”

“In our states we have consistently seen that when secular entities join with religious health systems, the services, information and referrals provided at the secular entity become limited by religious doctrine,” the e-mail to Walgreens said.

‘Ethical and Religious Directives.’

In a Dec. 14 press release, the ACLU wrote that Catholic health-care systems are required to follow “Ethical and Religious Directives” promulgated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that “forbid or severely restrict critical reproductive and end-of-life health-care services at Catholic health facilities, including contraception, abortions, fertility treatments, vasectomies, tubal ligations, aid in dying, and advance directives that are contrary to Catholic teachings.”

The statement refers to the 2012 affiliation between Providence and Seattle-based Swedish Health Services, which stopped providing elective abortions after joining with Providence. Some of the in-store clinics in the Seattle area will be called Swedish Express Care.

Walgreens spokesman Jim Cohn told Bloomberg BNA in a Dec. 16 e-mail that “Most of the ACLU's letter focuses on services that are not applicable to a retail healthcare clinic setting, regardless of the provider. We plan to clarify that in our response to ACLU.”

Cohn referred questions on the scope of services to Providence, which will be operating the in-store clinics.

Walk-in Contraception?

Providence spokeswoman Colleen Wadden said in a Dec. 16 e-mail: “Regarding contraception, Providence respects the clinician-patient relationship and consumers will receive prescriptions that are medically indicated. As a point of clarification, Swedish is not a Catholic health care provider.”

When directly asked by Bloomberg BNA in a follow-up e-mail if Providence providers at the in-store clinics will provide contraceptive prescriptions, she responded: “Yes, prescriptions are provided.”

“Consumers can expect Express Care to be able to diagnose and treat conditions such as colds, minor cuts and burns, skin infections, rashes, stomach pain, contusions and sprains and provide children's sports physicals,” Wadden said. “Other, more in-depth issues would be referred to primary or specialty care.”

‘We Care for Everyone.’

“STD counseling and testing will be offered at Express Care, but ongoing treatment will be referred to a primary care provider,” Wadden wrote. “Discussions about end of life care and other complex issues are not appropriate for a retail clinic, and patients will be referred to the appropriate setting.”

Wadden added that Express Care will treat everyone equally, without discriminating on any parameter including sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.

Cohn, the Walgreens’ spokesman, said the chain has over 400 in-store clinics managed by Walgreens which “provide a range of contraceptive services, in addition to acute care, treatment of chronic and common illness and conditions, and other preventive health services. We have no plans to change any of our current policies in light of the Providence relationship.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Paul Shukovsky in Seattle at Pshukovsky@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Nancy Simmons at nsimmons@bna.com