Prepared for the challenges ahead, committed to health access for all

July 1, 2011

By ANTHONY R. TERSIGNI
2010-2011 chairperson, 
CHA's board of trustees
President and chief executive
Ascension Health, St. Louis

When I assumed the role of chairperson of the CHA board a year ago, I was excited about the prospect of having a larger role in influencing the future of the Catholic health ministry in the United States, and also about the many opportunities I would have to work more closely with my colleagues across the country as well as with the exceptional staff of CHA. And since my office is just a few short blocks from CHA's office in St. Louis, I said to myself, "How much work could it be?" Of course, I knew the answer: "Plenty."

As my term began, the nation had just achieved a key milestone: passage of the first meaningful health reform legislation in a generation. The law put us on a course to provide health insurance for 32 million more Americans as part of a comprehensive approach of improving access and coverage. So mission accomplished É right?

Not quite. As we know, the law passed last year was far from perfect, and just a first step. As the 2,000-page law is put into effect over the next few years through the interpretation of thousands of pages of regulations, we will learn more about its impact on health care providers and on those we serve. We also know we have opportunities to influence the implementation of the law, and CHA has been working tirelessly in Washington, D.C., to ensure that our Catholic mission and values are reflected as much as possible as the law becomes reality.

Even as this process unfolds, some people are questioning both the intent and the constitutionality of the law. We have seen the House pass a bill to roll back health reform, as well as attempts to defund it. Regardless of the results or the seriousness of these efforts, the Catholic health ministry remains committed to working toward access and coverage for all. And across the nation, our religious sponsors, trustees, leaders, employees and physicians are continuing to prepare for the changes that health reform will bring.

Among those changes is a financial impact that will be absorbed by all of the nation's hospitals, Catholic and otherwise. Together, hospitals have agreed to contribute $155 billion in reduced Medicare reimbursements over the next 10 years to help fund expanded coverage and other aspects of reform. It's important that we not be distracted by the rhetoric and political jockeying happening in Washington. Regardless of which components of health reform might get slowed down or compromised over the next few years, I fully expect the Medicare reimbursement declines to stick.

Beyond the specifics of implementing the health reform law, discussions continue in our nation's capital about how to deal with our crushing national debt and its impact throughout the economy. We don't yet know where this debate will lead, but we do know that health care funding through Medicare and Medicaid will continue to be targeted as areas where both national and state budgets might be cut. I know CHA will remain vigilant in advocating for the nation's Catholic health care providers throughout this process.

During the past year we have seen the country's continued economic weakness take a toll on many Catholic hospitals and systems. A number of them have been acquired by for-profit corporations and venture capital firms. These circumstances have challenged the Catholic health ministry to come up with creative ways to deal with the very real capital needs of our struggling hospitals and systems, now and in a future of reduced reimbursements, while ensuring they maintain their Catholic identity and their focus on serving those who are poor and vulnerable.

We have seen some bold approaches to address this ongoing challenge, and I anticipate additional creative ideas will emerge to help ensure the continuation of a strong, vibrant Catholic health ministry in the United States.

Certainly the challenges of the past year have seemed daunting, as do those to come. But when has our ministry not been challenged?

Today's Catholic health care leaders stand upon the shoulders of giants — courageous religious women and men who came to America with few resources and no grand strategies, but with a commitment to serve the needs of individuals and communities with a preferential option for those who are poor and vulnerable. As long as we live up to our responsibility to honor their legacy by remaining true to the mission they began, we know Christ will be with us.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge the leadership and support of CHA's president and chief executive officer, Sr. Carol Keehan, DC, during my time as chairperson. Sr. Carol is a tireless advocate for the underserved and a tremendous leader for this organization, and I want to thank her and her dedicated staff at CHA.

As I pass the chairperson reins to Bob Stanek, I would tell him to be prepared for a lot of work. But the year will go quickly, and looking back he'll be amazed at what will have been accomplished by CHA and its members throughout the United States.

 

Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
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