Groups press Walgreens on religious restrictions in clinics

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CHICAGO (AP) — Four groups led by the American Civil Liberties Union are asking Walgreens for reassurance that its partnership with a Catholic health care system to run in-store clinics in the St. Louis area won't limit women's access to birth control.

The drugstore giant announced in April that SSM Health, a St. Louis-based Catholic system, would own and operate 27 health clinics in Walgreens stores in Missouri and Illinois. The clinics open later this month.

In letters dated Wednesday, the ACLU-led groups asked Walgreens and SSM Health whether the clinics would be restricted by religious doctrine from allowing consultations on birth control and referrals for abortion.

The letters echo concerns raised by the ACLU in the states of Washington and Oregon over a similar deal involving 25 Walgreens-based clinics and another Catholic health system, Providence Health.

Nationally, retail clinics are a growing segment of health care with more patients choosing them over doctor's offices for the convenience of weekend and evening service and drop-in visits. The number of retail clinics will surpass 2,800 by 2017, which would be a 47 percent increase from 2014, according to the consulting firm Accenture.

Walgreens is a big player with more than 400 drugstore walk-in clinics offering care for minor illnesses from nurse practitioners.

Recently, Deerfield, Illinois-based Walgreens, the nation's largest drugstore chain, started forming partnerships with outside health systems to run clinics. That's part of Walgreens' growth plan, said company spokeswoman Emily Hartwig-Mekstan. Walgreens also collaborates with Advocate Health Care to run more than 50 clinics in the Chicago area. Advocate is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the United Church of Christ.

Clinics run by Walgreens "do provide a range of contraceptive services," Hartwig-Mekstan said. She referred questions about the 27 St. Louis-area clinics to SSM Health, whose spokesman Jason Merrill repeatedly declined to answer directly whether SSM Health would offer contraceptive services at its Walgreens clinic locations.

"SSM Health will continue to offer the same services that are currently available at Walgreens Healthcare Clinics today," Merrill said in an emailed statement. "If a patient requires services that are beyond the scope of what is appropriate for a retail clinic setting, they will be referred to a primary care physician or other provider of their choice who can ensure they receive the care they need."

When a patient seeks contraception or a referral for an abortion, "we want them to get standard-of-care medical treatment," said Lorie Chaiten of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

"Nothing in the (SSM Health) statement explains how they will comply with the Catholic health care restrictions in these clinics," she said. "We continue to look forward to an opportunity to talk with them and to get concrete, direct answers to the questions we've raised."

Also signing the letters were representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, MergerWatch and the National Health Law Program. MergerWatch, an affiliate of Community Catalyst, was formed in 1996 to push for reproductive services during mergers of secular and religious hospitals.

SSM Health's St. Louis University Hospital follows restrictions enforced by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, including those barring contraceptives, according to the hospital's website.

The ACLU letters also raise concern about how lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender patients will be treated at the SSM Health clinics.

Merrill, the SSM Health spokesman, said the health system "is proud to treat every patient with dignity and respect."


Follow AP Medical Writer Carla K. Johnson at

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