DOWNTOWN — A Catholic health system that wanted $5.5 million in Chicago tax dollars to fund projects in the city has come under fire for restricting women’s access to birth control.
Presence Health had hoped to use a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) subsidy for development at four sites around the city, and the Community Development Commission was to discuss the plan Tuesday. But critics, including aldermen, said taxpayer dollars shouldn't go toward the medical system because it restricts women from accessing birth control and other reproductive health procedures.
The meeting, which was scheduled to move the funding forward, has now been postponed. And the alderman whose ward the funds would come from has withdrawn his support of it.
Presence Health, which runs three hospitals in the city, abides by the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, according to Salon. Those directives say birth control or any other contraceptive practice cannot be promoted or condoned, abortion "is never permitted" and temporary or permanent sterilization procedures should not be performed by doctors.
Presence Health did not comment on its policies, but the health system said the funding would be important for a planned Cancer Center.
"The TIF funding supporting the new Cancer Center is critically important to Chicago’s West Town neighborhood," said Dougal Hewitt, the chief officer for Mission and External Affairs, in a statement. "This is because it allows Presence Health to continue to meet our mission to provide quality and compassionate health care especially to the underserved and most vulnerable members of that community."
But the National Organization for Women's Chicago chapter cited Presence Health's policies when speaking out against the health system's TIF request in a Tuesday statement.
Chicago NOW, like others who spoke out against the request, said it respected Presence Health's choices, but didn't think it should be aided by taxpayer money. Catholic health systems like Presence are expanding, leaving fewer options for people who want to access birth control and other reproductive services, Chicago NOW said.
"If Presence receives more funding, access to women's health services will decrease even more," Christina Tanner, a Chicago NOW board member, said in a statement.
At the same time, Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) rescinded his letter of support for Presence Health's TIF request, saying he couldn't support using taxpayer money to fund the system because it prohibits doctors from prescribing birth control or providing contraceptive services.
"In essence, this institution is asking for our tax dollars to support its overall mission, which includes its policies governing patient care and access to contraceptive and reproductive health services," Reilly said in a statement. "I have very serious concerns about the city of Chicago and its taxpayers subsidizing Presence Health and their policy that restricts their patients' access to reproductive freedom, contraceptive care and services."
Ald. Deb Mell (33rd) said she doesn't want to "demonize" Presence Health, calling them a "good hospital system" — but she also objects to the healthcare system's TIF request and plans because of its birth control restrictions.
"I believe that women shouldn't have any barriers to access basic reproductive care. My concerns are [for] the woman who goes there and is given a hard time because she wants to discuss basic reproductive health," Mell said. "And offering her referrals is not the same as on-site healthcare. People are busy, and I think also when you refer someone else there's a perceived judgment to it ... ."
Mell said Presence Health has been considering building a clinic in her ward, but she’d rather see another clinic come in — one that helps people with their reproductive care, she said.
"I just want unencumbered access to law-abiding reproductive healthcare," Mell said. "That's what I want in the ward."
Lorie Chaiten, the director of the ACLU's Women's and Reproductive Rights Project, said she hasn't researched Presence Health specifically, but explained that Catholic health systems with restrictive policies are “a problem.”
Women go to experts expecting to get contraceptive counseling and access to what they need, Chaiten said, but they’re not able to get those at Catholic health systems that enforce the Ethical and Religious Directives. They’re referred elsewhere or have to find another provider, which is particularly hard on low-income women who already have limited access to healthcare systems, Chaiten said.
At the same time, those systems received government funding, Chaiten said.
"One of the biggest problems is that people don’t know it. You think that when you’re miscarrying and you go to the hospital you’re going to hear about all of your medical options and you’re going to get the care that’s best for you, you’re not going to have that care defined by somebody else’s religious beliefs," Chaiten said. "The fact that they use public funds to provide care that is not the standard of care but instead is limited because of religious objections is of huge concern to us."
About one in three hospital beds is in a Catholic hospital in Illinois, Chaiten said; nationally, one in six is in a Catholic hospital. And Catholic healthcare providers have seen their market share grow dramatically in recent years, Chaiten said.
“I think people are shocked when they learn that you could go to an OBGYN or a family practice physician asking for birth control counseling and birth control services and not being given what you need medically,” Chaiten said. “People expect when they go to the doctor’s office that it’s their health that’s an issue — not someone else’s religion.”
In July, Gov. Bruce Rauner angered Republicans and anti-abortion activists by signing a bill that requires all medical facilities, including Catholic hospitals, to let patients know where they can access birth control and other reproductive health services if their facility does not provide those services.
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