June 30, 2023

Reproductive groups worry about hospital’s merger with Catholic-based hospital system

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and Bold Futures sent a letter to Jim Heckert, chief executive officer of Gerald Champion Regional Medical Center, expressing concern about the proposed merger of the Alamogordo-based hospital with Catholic-based Christus Health.

The ACLU-NM and Bold Futures outline several concerns regarding the proposed merger which, according to the letter, is set to take place July 1. Their primary concern is how the merger will impact reproductive healthcare, healthcare for LGBTQ individuals and end-of-life care because Christus is a Catholic-based medical center.

GCRMC and Christus did not respond to requests for comment.

Gerald Champion Regional Medical Center is the only level III trauma center in the region and, in addition to serving individuals living in Otero County, it also serves men and women based at Holloman Air Force Base and members of the Mescalero Apache Reservation. The letter, signed by Ellie Rushforth, ACLU-NM managing attorney for reproductive rights and gender equity, and Charlene Bencomo, executive director of Bold Futures, requests enforceable conditions to ensure a continuum of care after the merger takes place. The letter also asks for greater transparency.

The letter details the ethical and religious directives for Catholic Health Care Services which place religious doctrine over evidence-based standards of healthcare. The letter states that the ethical and religious directives will determine care and a male bishop will interpret the directives to determine who receives what kind of care.

“The confusing and unpredictable variation in how hospitals apply the ERDs have led to delayed and denied healthcare, compromised clinician autonomy, and have caused patients and their families severe harm,” the letter states.

The letter states that ACLU-NM and Bold Futures are concerned about stated potential “workarounds” and “pathways” that will ensure care will still be provided to those who need it even if it is not available at Gerald Champion after the merger.

“These assurances remain vague and unenforceable,” the letter states and also says that referrals “are also insufficient.”

“Patients, including LGBTQ+ individuals, women and the terminally ill, should never feel judged or unwelcome at a healthcare facility because of their identities or personal health care decisions,” the letter says.

“We firmly believe in the fundamental right to religious exercise and expression, and we have a long history of defending that right,” Rushforth said through a news release. “However, religious freedom does not give a health care system the right to limit information and access to basic health care by imposing a narrow set of directives on everyone. The hospital should seek feedback from their community and take more time to consider the potential risks posed by this transaction to their patients and health care providers.” 

The ACLU-NM and Bold Futures said they have heard from many community members who have expressed fear about what kind of healthcare the merger will bring to Otero County. At a recent Otero County Commission meeting, a member of Holloman Air Force Base, Jacquelyne Nichols, talked about her concerns about the merger and how it might impact care for individuals like her who, after serving in the military, is now facing infertility issues because of her time served and now requires assisted reproductive technologies to help her conceive.

Jim Heckert, GCRMC chief executive officer, told Otero County Commissioners at the same June 8 meeting that GCRMC started the process 18 months ago to find another hospital system to merge with and announced in early May a letter of intent to make that merger with Christus Health, based in Texas.

Heckert said GCRMC is “doing well” but that the hospital is experiencing a financial decline and that the merger needs to happen to protect the hospital 5-10 years from now.

“I’m one doctor away from disaster, because in some cases, that’s all I have,” Heckert told the commission.

Rushforth said through the news release that “evidence-based medical standards and trained providers…should govern the care you receive.” She also expressed concern about how a potential change in standards of care at GCRMC might impact care at various medical clinics in Otero County associated with the hospital.

“While it remains uncertain how associated clinical sites will be integrated into the Christus Health system, GCRMC has a responsibility to engage in open and meaningful dialogue with the community it serves. The ultimate decision maker regarding health care should be trained medical experts, not a local Catholic bishop,” Rushforth said through the release.