A coalition of northeast Connecticut residents is calling on state officials to deny a Catholic health system’s proposal to acquire Day Kimball Hospital in rural Putnam, citing potential restrictions the new owner could place on reproductive health and emergency contraception, as well as gender-affirming, end-of-life and other care.

The group, Save Day Kimball Hospital, gathered momentum this summer after the hospital filed an application with the state in April — known as a “certificate of need” — seeking the Office of Health Strategy’s approval to transfer ownership to Massachusetts-based Covenant Health. OHS responded in late May, asking for additional information, and Day Kimball provided responses in late July.

But coalition members say the proposed deal, and the state’s response, have proceeded with “little to no community input.” 

The group has held meetings, sent letters to state officials and protested outside the hospital with signs. They argue that the Catholic church’s Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, or ERDs, could eliminate needed services in their rural community, leaving residents with few options. 

This week coalition members launched a petition on change.org, gathering signatures of community members who oppose the acquisition. “We do not want religion to replace sound medical practice and a scientific basis for health care decisions,” the petition states. 

Under the terms of the proposed deal, Covenant Health would acquire Day Kimball, bringing what they describe as a struggling rural health care system into Covenant’s larger network and absorbing tens of millions of dollars of its debt. Day Kimball is one of the few remaining independent hospitals in the state, and it has performed poorly financially relative to other Connecticut hospitals in recent years.

A spokeswoman from Covenant Health didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Day Kimball CEO Kyle Kramer said the hospital remains “steadfastly committed” to the community and that the planned affiliation with Covenant Health would put Day Kimball on more secure financial footing, allowing it to expand many of its services.

Asked about the community coalition’s opposition to the deal, Kramer said, “Their claim is they want to ‘save Day Kimball Hospital’ — interestingly enough that’s what we’ve been trying to do all along.”

The Office of Health Strategy declined to comment on the case because it is currently under review. A spokeswoman for the office said there will likely be a public hearing before the end of this calendar year, but no date has been set yet.

In the meantime, public comments from members of the Save Day Kimball Hospital group and other interested parties are appearing on the “certificate of need” portal (docket No. 32538).

In one letter, Day Kimball patient Margaret Martin wrote of her concern that many residents of the rural area surrounding the hospital could lose access to the care they need. “I am not averse to the notion of compassionate and ethical care or to the Catholic religion itself,” Martin wrote. “I do object however to the imposition of one
moral code on the health care of an entire population — which this acquisition would create.”

The proposed merger comes amid heightened debate nationwide over access to abortion, contraception and other reproductive health services. As many states — including Connecticut — seek to expand access and provide a safe haven for patients seeking abortions, the ethical and religious directives could restrict Catholic health systems in those same states from providing some of the services legislators are working to protect. 

Elizabeth Canning, a teacher in Killingly, took issue with the hospitals’ claims that transportation to other facilities is plentiful in the area. Canning said as a teacher she often waited hours for parents to arrive on the bus to pick up their children. In some cases she offered rides to students so they wouldn’t miss appointments.

“Day Kimball Hospital is a needed facility for many young men and women who live on the lower end of the economic scale. Many of these young people want and need reproductive health care. It is irresponsible for any organization to prohibit reproductive care to those most in need, where there is no easily reachable alternate hospital,” Canning wrote.

Top Catholic health systems, like many large health systems, are becoming dominant providers in their regions, growing through acquisition of smaller, struggling hospitals. Four of the country’s 10 largest health care systems are Catholic, and they control hundreds of acute care hospitals, urgent care clinics, physician practice groups and other facilities.

In Connecticut, Trinity Health — the nation’s sixth-largest system, according to a recent report — operates Saint Francis Hospital in Hartford, Johnson Memorial Hospital in Stafford and Saint Mary’s Hospital in Waterbury, among other facilities.

State Attorney General William Tong said in an emailed statement that his office is monitoring the proceedings “and will submit formal comments as part of the Office of Health Strategy certificate of need process.”

Tong added: “Day Kimball services a rural community with limited hospital choice, and we need to ensure that any new ownership can provide a full range of care — including reproductive health care, family planning, gender affirming care, and end of life care.”

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Erica E. PhillipsEconomic Development Reporter

Erica covers economic development for CT Mirror. Before moving to Connecticut to join the staff she worked in Los Angeles for public radio’s Marketplace and, before that, for the Wall Street Journal's L.A. bureau. She grew up in Minneapolis, MN, graduated from Haverford College and earned a master’s in journalism from the University of Southern California.