Walgreens clinics run by SSM to include birth control

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Should the city provide taxpayer-funded subsidies to a health care provider who does not provide reproductive services? It’s become an issue in the mayor’s race. | Sun-Times file photo.

ST. LOUIS — The nonprofit Catholic organization SSM Health will provide birth control pills at the 26 clinics inside St. Louis-area Walgreens stores that it began operating Thursday, an SSM spokesman said.

Four groups, led by the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote letters to SSM and Walgreens on Aug. 18, asking whether the clinics would be restricted by religious doctrine from allowing consultations on birth control and referrals for abortions.

SSM spokesman Jason Merrill said in a phone interview Thursday that the clinics will provide 30-day refills for contraceptive pills previously prescribed by a physician —€” the same policy carried by the clinics previously run in-house by Walgreens. A website for the clinics shows a long list of services, everything from vaccinations and wellness checkups to treatment for illness and injury, but it makes no reference to birth control.

The new clinics, operated by a nurse practitioner, will be known as the SSM Health Express Clinic at Walgreens. Twenty-two of them are in Missouri, and four are in Illinois.

Lorie Chaiten, director of the women’s and reproductive rights project for the ACLU of Illinois, said the decision to provide birth control was encouraging. But Chaiten and others who wrote letters last week still want a meeting with Walgreens and SSM. Amy Chen, staff attorney for the National Health Law Program, said questions remain “about the type of reproductive health care that patients will be receiving.”

Patients are increasingly choosing retail walk-in clinics like those available at more than 400 Walgreens stores, opting for the convenience of weekend and evening services that need no appointment. The consulting firm Accenture says the number of retail clinics will surpass 2,800 by 2017, a 47 percent increase from 2014.

The partnership with outside health systems is part of Walgreens’ growth plan, a spokeswoman for the Illinois-based chain said last week.

The agreement with Walgreens is an “important milestone in SSM Health’s commitment to improving the health of our community,” James Bleicher, regional president of the SSM Health Medical Group, said in a statement.

SSM is based in St. Louis.

Last week’s letters to Walgreens and SSM were signed by representatives of ACLU offices in Missouri and Illinois, the National Health Law Program, and MergerWatch, an affiliate of Community Catalyst, which was formed in 1996 to push for reproductive services during mergers of secular and religious hospitals.

The ACLU previously raised concerns over similar deals in Washington and Oregon involving 25 Walgreens-based clinics and another Catholic health system, Providence Health.

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