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Attorney General's opinion raises questions about Cascade Valley's possible affiliation

ARLINGTON — Cascade Valley Hospital faces some serious questions after the state Attorney General's office issued Attorney General Bob Ferguson's formal opinion that a public hospital district providing maternity care must also provide "substantially equivalent benefits, services or information" regarding contraception and abortion.

The Attorney General's office issued the formal opinion on Wednesday, Aug. 21, in response to a request by state Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, who asked if a public hospital district violates Initiative 120 if it solely contracts with a health care provider that does not provide reproductive care services, such as contraception or abortion.

This opinion impacts the Cascade Valley, Island and Skagit Valley hospitals, because those three partnered nonprofit community hospitals have been considering possible affiliations with one of four larger nonprofit health care systems — Providence/Swedish, Virginia Mason, University of Washington Medicine and PeaceHealth — two of which are Catholic.

Heather Logan, assistant administrator of Cascade Valley Hospital, had reported that attendees of a July 31 community forum, conducted in Mount Vernon by the joint boards of commissioners for the three hospitals, had expressed reservations about Providence/Swedish and PeaceHealth restricting certain services according to Catholic doctrine.

Cascade Valley Hospital CEO Clark Jones had previously summarized Providence/Swedish and PeaceHealth's approaches to reproductive issues by noting that, while they will not provide elective abortions within their facilities, they do allow their physicians to make those referrals. However, in the wake of the Attorney General's opinion, Jones acknowledged that further clarification will be needed in that area.

"I am not an attorney, nor have I consulted with our attorney about the Attorney General's opinion issued today," Jones said on Aug. 21. "However, it appears that, if we were to select a Catholic organization for affiliation, any issues raised by the Attorney General's opinion will have to be addressed."

In spite of these concerns — as well as the Attorney General's lack of clarification about how hospital districts might comply with Initiative 120, or even what exactly constitutes "substantially equivalent benefits, services or information" — Jones doesn't believe that such complications on their own will rule out either of the two Catholic organizations as potential choices, nor does he anticipate any delays in the three hospital boards' decision, which he expects them to make at their joint meeting on Thursday, Aug. 29, in Mount Vernon.

As of Thursday, Aug. 22, Jones was on leave and unavailable for further comment.

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