FRANKFORT — Gov. Steve Beshear said Wednesday that it's too early for him to decide whether to approve a merger of several hospitals in the state that would leave them under the control of a Catholic health network.
The proposed merger, which is subject to state approval, involves University of Louisville Hospital, Jewish Hospital and St. Mary's HealthCare, and the Lexington-based St. Joseph Healthcare System, owned by Denver-based Catholic Health Initiatives.
It has raised questions about how reproductive medicine would be delivered and taught at University of Louisville Hospital, which has agreed to abide by the Catholic health system's limitations on reproductive-health procedures.
Beshear met privately for more than an hour in the Capitol with principals involved in the proposed merger.
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Afterward, Beshear said the merger partners gave him an overview of the proposal.
"We have begun a process of identifying issues and questions that need to be answered both from an access-to-care standpoint, as well as from a legal standpoint," Beshear said.
He said he has asked Attorney General Jack Conway to head the legal review of the merger for the state.
Asked whether he will approve the merger, Beshear said, "It's too early yet to make any decision on that.
"They explained there are certain positive economic benefits to the individual merger participants, as well as to the community and commonwealth," he said. "At the same time, we public officials have the duty to review this."
Beshear said he has no timetable for the review. "We are going to make sure we get all these issues answered before anything moves forward. Obviously, we will be expeditious in our review."
Beshear said there was general discussion about how reproductive care would be delivered, especially at U of L Hospital.
He said he wants to make sure that the public mission of the hospital remains the same.
U of L officials have promised they will find ways for poor patients to keep receiving the full range of care, including procedures that would no longer be allowed, such as emergency abortions and elective sterilizations.
Paul Edgett, senior vice president of Catholic Health Initiatives, said after Wednesday's meeting with the governor that specific solutions to address the controversy will be offered within the next few days.
He said there are "a variety of alternatives" but declined to be specific.
Edgett said he had anticipated the state's review would take nine to 12 months.
"Obviously, the sooner we can implement, the better it would be," he said.
University of Louisville President Jim Ramsey said the media "created a lot of misinformation" about the merger. He specifically mentioned the issue of end-of-life care.
"Nothing is going to change with merger" concerning end-of-life treatment, he said, but added there is "need for more follow-up" on other issues.
Conway said issues he will be reviewing range from the use of public property to charitable gifts.
The Federal Trade Commission has asked his office to review the merger, which will take about a year, he said.
Auditor Crit Luallen said she will help Conway analyze financial issues in the merger.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said there are "a lot of good reasons to do the merger," but the public needs to be comfortable with it.