Partnership Health director eases county’s concerns over Liberty University med students

Laurie Francis, right, executive director of the Partnership Health Center, talks to a patient in this file photo. Francis eased the concerns of Missoula County commissioners who questioned whether medical students from Liberty University would serve the center without religious bias. (Missoula Current file photo)

Taking a rare pause from business as usual, Missoula County commissioners on Tuesday summoned the director of Partnership Health Center to seek more information about a team of medical students expected to arrive from Liberty University.

In particular, Commissioner Josh Slotnick asked if the students would “proselytize” on the job or deny treatment based upon religious values perceived to be affiliated with the private evangelical Christian school in Lynchburg, Virginia.

“I’m no expert on Liberty University, and I’m not pretending to be an expert on Liberty University,” Slotnick said. “It’s just by reputation. It’s not like the University of North Dakota or Mississippi State or something. It’s a specialized private school built upon one type of religion and I’m nervous about that.”

The issue surfaced during what’s typically a mundane agenda item – approving a clinical training agreement with medical students attending from an outside institution. Partnership Health Center has done so dozens of times and always with little discussion.

But Slotnick took note of Liberty University, saying the school’s religious foundation and history should be questioned as a best fit for the Missoula medical facility and the patients who turn to it for care.

“There’s been a lot of controversy out there about national health care providers not wanting to speak about specific health issues if those things conflict with their personal values,” Slotnick said.

“Given the reputation of Liberty University, we could be potentially asking people to put themselves in a position they don’t want to be in that would have an adverse effect on those who walk through the door at Partnership and the people who made the trek from Liberty University here to work.”

After being called to the meeting, Partnership executive director Lauri Francis noted the health center’s history of working with medical students, and the agreements it has in place to ensure all patients receive care.

“Certainly there are some providers who aren’t comfortable with certain things,” Francis said. “The agreement within any health center is that if we chose to hire people, their discomfort is fine, but they can’t use their personal biases to influence care.”

Partnership Health Center is a federally qualified facility and receives federal funding. As such, Francis said, federal rules already dictate what services it can and cannot provide.

“We have requirements as to what we can and can’t talk about,” Francis said. “We’re actually not able to provide certain services with federal dollars, so we don’t do any abortion services, but we do provide counseling regarding any options and how to access those options.”

Francis added that if a provider can’t meet a patient’s needs without judgment, the patient is moved to a different provider.

“It’s actually something we deal with all the time,” she said. “And with medical students, they’re really just shadowing. We have students from all over the country, and they each come with their lived experience. We’re pretty clear with our mission vision and the way we approach patient care.”