PORT ANGELES — Olympic Medical Center commissioner candidates weighed in at a general election forum on whether OMC should provide abortions, with one candidate supporting a change in policy.
They also differed on the obligations of the hospital in regard to the Death With Dignity Act.
At an hour-long online event sponsored last Thursday by the Clallam County League of Women Voters, five candidates, including incumbent Thom Hightower, who is running unopposed, were asked for their stance on “the hospital and its clinics providing lawful abortions.”
The answers ranged from three seconds to almost the full minute allotted for each response to each question.
More than 52,000 voters from Blyn to Beaver will be mailed general election ballots Oct. 13 that will include the OMC commissioner races, which cover the largest voter total of any positions up for election. The Nov. 2 general election also includes city council and school board contests from the West End to Sequim.
Heather Jeffers, administrator of Avamere Olympic Rehabilitation of Sequim, said OMC’s status as a public hospital means it should provide abortion services.
“I think if we have providers who are able and willing and capable and provide that service, then we should be able to provide that service to patients without any opinions about the ethical or moral situations,” she said.
“I don’t think that women should have to leave the area to get services that are legal,” Jeffers said.
“If we are going to stay a public hospital, we need to provide all services to everybody.”
Her opponent, Karen Rogers, a business consultant and former Port Angeles City Council member and appointed mayor, said she supports the present state law and hospital policy.
“It does provide for the right for women as has been passed by law, both at the Supreme Court level and at Washington state,” she said. “And when you register to sign up for office, the first thing you do is you sign the oath that you will uphold the law, and therefore I uphold the law.”
Board President John Nutter explained present hospital policy Tuesday.
“While I cannot speak on behalf of the entire board or organization, I believe it is accurate to say that OMC has not provided such services because we have not employed any providers wanting to provide those services, which are available elsewhere in our community,” he said in an email.
A policy change would require a vote of the board of commissioners, Nutter said.
“I support a woman’s rights both personally and professionally,” said incumbent Tom Oblak, running against Jim McEntire, a former Clallam County and Port of Port Angeles commissioner.
McEntire said OMC’s policy complies with the state law.
“I’m happy to comply with the law if I’m elected,” he said. “That will be the oath that I take, to perform my duties faithfully and impartially, and complying with the law is a bedrock principle with any elective office.”
Hightower said he supports women’s rights to abortion services.
“But I’m in a position where I, in the future, if there was any discussions regarding abortion changes or services provided, I would support the idea of having the dialogue,” Hightower said.
“In hospitals, this is an extremely complex issue, and it would need to require a great deal more talk and discussion to change the services as we currently provide them.”
According to the hospital’s Access to Reproductive Health Services, Including Maternity and Pregnancy Termination Services policy, OMC respects the right of employees to not take part in performing an abortion.
The hospital provides maternity aid benefits and “substantially equivalent pregnancy termination benefits, services or information,” according to a policy that follows the state Reproductive Privacy Act.
“The Act contains a conscience clause acknowledging that no person may be required in any circumstance to participate in the performance of an abortion if such person objects to doing so,” it says.
“The public hospital district respects each individual’s right to refuse to participate in an abortion if such person objects to doing so.”
Death With Dignity
The candidates also differed on what role OMC should play in ensuring access to provisions of the Death With Dignity Act, approved by voters statewide in 2008. It allows terminally ill adults to end their life by requesting lethal doses of medication from medical and osteopathic physicians.
“Again, I go back to, this is legal,” Jeffers said. “OMC currently does not support this.”
She said when a family member wanted to use provisions allowed in the Act, there were no providers within OMC or local pharmacies willing to participate.
“I feel really strongly that, again, [with] a service that is legal, if we have providers that are willing to participate, they should be allowed to.”
Rogers said OMC does have a policy, and she supports it.
“This is a patient-initiated request. This is not a medically prescribed procedure,” Rogers said.
“There’s a significant difference. And if you read the annual report with the Department of Health, filed with the governor’s office, you’ll find that death with dignity does not take place in the hospital.
“It takes place in the patient’s home, or a hospice facility or at a skilled nursing facility. It’s a private time that a patient chooses.
“We can’t force doctors to do this.”
Oblak said hospital officials believe that a hospital, as an acute care facility, is not the right setting for end-of-life medications, adding most people would prefer to be at home with their loved ones around them.
McEntire said he agrees with OMC policy that was approved by the board of commissioners.
“It strikes a good balance between the legality of the self-initiated or patient-initiated procedures and the reason why the hospital is there to begin with, which is to save life and preserve life.”
YouTube recordings of League forums on races for hospital commissioner, the Port Angeles School Board and Port Angeles and Sequim city councils are at lwvcla.org.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].