Critical Conversations 2020 explores Catholic health care’s singular history, future

March 15, 2020


ATLANTA — Fr. Charles Bouchard, OP, CHA's senior director of theology and sponsorship, sparked a lively exchange at the association's Critical Conversations meeting here last month when he asked the ministry chief executives in attendance whether they feel ready for the day when there are no women religious working in Catholic health care.

Fr Bouchard
Fr. Bouchard

Generations of women religious built the Catholic health care ministry into the largest nonprofit health sector in the U.S., and did so while advancing whole person care, Catholic social teaching and Catholic principles of social justice. Although there are women religious on the sponsor boards at most of the largest Catholic systems, the number of sisters active in the ministry continues to decline. Lay men and women have for some time held the top executive and operating posts at the largest Catholic health systems, the vast majority of which are organized as ministerial juridic persons with laity represented on sponsor boards that are responsible for their organization's Catholic identity and fidelity to church teachings.

Critical Conversations
Patrick McCruden, standing, SSM Health's chief mission integration officer, converses with Laura Kaiser, SSM Health's president and chief executive, and Larry LeGrand, SSM Health board chair, during a break at CHA's Critical Conversations 2020 meeting in Atlanta last month.

"It is clear to all of us that whatever happens in the future, the sisters will not be doing it," Fr. Bouchard said to the gathering of about 80 ministry leaders, which, in addition to chief executives, included members of sponsor boards and executive mission leaders from across the ministry.

The Critical Conversations meeting is convened every two years as a forum for CHA members to share mission-relevant information and expertise and to provide input that will advance CHA's work. This year's attendees gave input that will inform the drafting of a strategic plan for FY 2021-23.


Elizabeth Dunne, president and chief executive of PeaceHealth and a CHA board member, answered Fr. Bouchard's question about the transfer of leadership responsibility from vowed religious to laity with an anecdote: "I had a colleague who, when I first came into Catholic health care, said, 'Liz, are you ready to take that big burning ball of accountability from the sisters?' Now that is a visual," Dunne said.

Dunne's answer? "Absolutely not, but what I'm ready to do is to make the commitment to work in community, to work in partnership and to ask for help."

Sr. Wolf

Sr. Laura Wolf, OSF, is a member of the sponsor board of Franciscan Calais Ministries, the ministerial juridic person of Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System; and is former president of Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity Sponsored Ministries. She said that while Catholic health care started and flourished as the work of religious congregations, for the last 50 years it has been transitioning to become an independent ministry of the church. "It isn't the sisters' ministry anymore, it is the church's ministry," she said.

Sr. Mary Ann Dillon, RSM, answers a question during a session at the Critical Conversations 2020 meeting on strengthening Catholic identity and church relationships. She is Trinity Health's executive vice president of mission integration and sponsorship. Other panelists include Tessie M. Guillermo, chair of the CommonSpirit Health Board of Stewardship Trustees, and Scott McConnaha, president and chief executive of Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity Sponsored Ministries. Fr. Charles Bouchard, OP, left, CHA's senior director of theology and sponsorship, moderated the panel.

After several lay leaders expressed wistful trepidation about the declining number of women religious active in their health care ministries and walking the halls of their hospitals, Sr. Jean Rhoads, DC, chair of Ascension Sponsor, offered reassurance. She said lay leaders of Catholic health care have demonstrated a sense of call and the ability to take risks focusing on the needs of those who are poor and vulnerable. "So, please don't underestimate yourself and all that God is calling you to do," she said. "Your hearts are already there — 1,000% there."

Laura Kaiser, president and chief executive of SSM Health, offered that she is "really optimistic" about the future of the Catholic health care ministry and its mission to provide special consideration for those who are poor and vulnerable. "There is more conversation today about social determinants of human dignity than ever before," she said. "Now we have to figure out how we go to Washington" and get policies enacted that provide for a payment structure that supports whole person care.


"We should be thinking of some different ways to be talking and making sure our voices are heard," Kaiser told the Critical Conversations participants.

Imagination and innovation
The meeting included a keynote presentation on courageous innovation by women religious throughout the history of Catholic health care in the U.S. The speaker, Barbara Mann Wall, directs of The Eleanor Crowder Bjoring Center for Nursing Historical Inquiry at the University of Virginia.

It was bookended with a panel discussion featuring three individuals whose technologically innovative companies have ties to members of the Catholic health ministry and are producing products or services to improve care and drive value. Those presenters included Mark Winham, senior vice president of operations for Invenio Genetics; Larry Stofko, executive vice president of the Innovation Institute; and Heather Wall, chief commercial officer of Civica Rx.

Sr Gottemoeller_a-7
Sr. Gottemoeller

Table discussions among participants fed robust discussions among the group at large on how to promote innovation and manage both ongoing and disruptive change while keeping true to Catholic identity.

Sr. Doris Gottemoeller, RSM, vice chair of Bon Secours Mercy Ministries, offered that Catholic imagination must come into play when providers consider how to provide compassionate care in an age of virtual care, artificial intelligence and remote call centers where unseen staff arrange for bed transfers for hospital patients who are hundreds of miles away. "How do we make sure the mission is part of that interaction? … I think we have a long way to go," she said.

Sr. Eck

Sr. Patricia Eck, CBS, chair of Bon Secours Mercy Ministries, said for her a central question is how to ensure that Catholic health care uses the time recaptured through the efficiencies of technological innovation "to create ways to make sure that compassion stays at the center of everything we do."

Catholic identity
Speaking as a panelist in the closing session on strengthening Catholic identity and church relationships, Tessie M. Guillermo called on Catholic health care providers to see themselves "as more authentic representatives of Catholic social teachings — social justice in particular — so those we touch on an everyday basis see us as an asset, as individuals relating to other individuals whether it is at the registration desk or in the cafeteria or out in the community where we do a lot of our works that define us as Catholic." Guillermo chairs CommonSpirit Health's board of stewardship trustees.

Her fellow panelist Scott McConnaha, president and chief executive of the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity Sponsored Ministries, said Catholic identity is best measured in "whether the people who come to us, whether Catholic or not, walk away from that experience and say, 'I was treated with dignity.'"

Fr. Bouchard, who moderated the panel on church relations, asked for the panelists' thoughts on negative stories in the media that define Catholic health care by the women's health treatments and procedures not offered, rather than by its contributions to the health and well-being of communities.

Panelist Sr. Mary Ann Dillon, RSM, executive vice president of mission integration and sponsorship for Trinity Health, said the media clearly recognize Catholic health care's role in attending to the needs of people who are poor and vulnerable and in taking care of the whole person, body, mind and spirit. "People celebrate that." She said the negative press coverage is narrowly focused on women's reproductive health and particularly around sterilization, which is forbidden by the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services. "These are real issues for women in our world, they are real issues for women who work for us," Sr. Dillon said. She recommended that CHA members work with the bishops to understand the issue more fully.

Further reading from previous issues of CHW:
Critical Conversations 2018 explores issues central to mission
Leaders consider the interconnection of Catholic identity and mission effectiveness

CHA moving forward with strategic planning

ATLANTA — In teeing up a conversation on the development of CHA's next strategic plan at the Critical Conversations meeting, Sr. Mary Haddad, RSM, CHA's president and chief executive, explained the process is grounded in what is going on in the country and in the health care industry.

Sr. Mary

Among the challenges she identified is the newly enacted "public charge" rule that will deter immigrants seeking permanent residence status from enrolling in Medicaid or continuing their coverage for fear that it will negatively impact their immigration status. Sr. Mary said CHA has voiced opposition to Medicaid block grant waivers that will cap Medicaid spending in states that seek the lump sum payments. CHA will increase its efforts to educate the public about the essential role of Medicaid.

Protecting the Affordable Care Act continues to be a major focus for CHA's advocacy department and its public policy committee, Sr. Mary said. "We also know that access alone isn't enough — we have to talk about affordability. Affordability is going to be a battle cry for us in the next couple of years."

Sr. Mary brought meeting participants up to date on progress in the development of the association's next strategic plan. Foundational work began in February 2019 when the CHA Board of Trustees under then-chair Michael Slubowski went through a process of defining the elements necessary to ensure a thriving ministry. Slubowski is president and chief executive of Trinity Health. Kevin Sexton, who succeeded Slubowski as board chair, wrote a document delineating the elements of a thriving ministry. Sexton is the retired president and chief executive of Holy Cross Health.

Sr. Mary said characteristics of a thriving ministry include:

  • Being clearly appreciated and respected as a ministry of the church
  • The ability to deliver high-quality care and have a significant impact on community health
  • Being innovative and broad in its approach to health care
  • Productive partnerships with other Catholic organizations such as Catholic Charities USA
  • Public awareness of, and strong support for, Catholic health care
  • The ability to use broad support to play a greater-than-expected role in influencing public policy

The strategic plan is expected to be brought to the CHA board for final approval in April, and, if approved, it would be voted on by CHA members at the Catholic Health Assembly in Atlanta in June.



Members provide feedback on issues

As part of its information gathering for the association's FY 2021 – 2023 strategic plan, CHA surveyed members in January to get their input on the top issues that are impacting their ministries. More than 1,200 members, representing a cross section of the membership, completed the short survey, which was created based on feedback from board members and those attending CHA's Joint Committee meeting in November.

Those serving in pastoral care, mission, board, sponsorship and executive leadership positions represented the highest percentage of respondents. In addition to gathering quantitative responses, the survey also collected hundreds of comments and story ideas that CHA is using to inform its strategic direction for the next three years.

There was clear consensus among survey respondents that enhancing affordability, access and quality of insurance coverage for all, with special attention to individuals who are low-income and vulnerable, should continue to be the leading priority for Catholic health care in the U.S.

A strong majority of survey respondents described Catholic health care in the U.S. as "healthy" or "thriving," while a similar percentage of respondents agreed/strongly agreed that civic leaders in their communities appreciate the contributions that Catholic health care makes to overall health and wellness. In addition, a strong majority of respondents said their own organizations have good relationships with Catholic leaders in their communities.

Respondents were also asked about their level of concern around several areas. The top concern was about health care policies enacted at the federal, state and local level that adversely impact operations and/or financial stability. Another top concern was the ability to recruit for mission roles over the next five years. On the question gauging concern about what impact the clergy sexual abuse and leadership crisis is having on Catholic health care, there were differing opinions with respondents split among those who are concerned and those unconcerned.

Survey participants were also asked to give a priority ranking to five focus areas, but the question did not yield a statistically significant difference that would establish a clear priority among those areas. The focus areas presented for consideration were palliative care; mental illness and substance abuse treatment; end-of-life care; social determinants of health, and advancing care innovations. While this was not intended as a comprehensive list of CHA's focus areas, the survey was an opportunity to see if any one of these areas rose above the rest in terms of member priorities.

CHA's Chief of Staff Angela Botticella presented top-line results from the survey at the Critical Conversations 2020 meeting, which was held Feb. 12- 13 in Atlanta. Following her presentation, attendees provided additional input on the topics covered. The feedback from the Critical Conversations meeting and the survey results were then shared with the CHA Board of Trustees during their strategic planning session in late February.




Copyright © 2020 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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