By PAMELA SCHAEFFER
ATLANTA — Health reform presents the opportunity for Catholic health care to advance its mission of healing, CHA President and Chief Executive Officer Sr. Carol Keehan, DC, told the audience at the 2011 Catholic Health Assembly here. But she cautioned that the ministry's continuing advocacy efforts are needed to preserve the advances of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
More than 800 leaders from Catholic health care organizations across the U.S. gathered for the annual assembly June 5-7 in Atlanta. During the three-day conference, attendees considered the opportunities and challenges delivered by the new reform law.
In her address, Sr. Keehan said the health ministry, having met the challenge to get health care reform passed, is now challenged "to keep it passed, to roll it out in a manner that delivers its promise to the insured and 32 million of the uninsured" and to keep Medicare as a strong program. "We strongly supported health reform, even though we knew it would create some known and many more unknown challenges for us. We did this firmly committed to the church's teaching on the sanctity of life."
Sr. Keehan went on to note the numerous accomplishments of Catholic health care during the past year, saying that CHA members cared for more than 5.5 million people in Catholic hospitals and pledged $10.1 million to rebuild Hospital St. Francis de Sales in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, which was destroyed by the 2010 earthquake.
"When it comes to tangible respect for life, Catholic health care is a great leader," she said. "For our members, respect for life demands concrete action. Programs for the unborn, especially the most vulnerable, those whose mothers live in poverty, or are mentally ill or addicted, proclaim how much we value life," she said.
Referring to "pressure groups" who criticize bishops and health care providers, Sr. Keehan said: "Dealing with problems that are clinically and morally challenging is not easy. It is easy to fault our associations with certain groups who do not fully subscribe to all our moral beliefs, but who at least share our concern for the suffering. It is easy to focus on our missteps, our mistakes, to generate suspicion using innuendo. We must humbly resist attempts to denigrate the church's healing ministry no matter where they come from. It is no small thing to undermine a ministry of the church."
The health care ministry, for its part "must enhance our partnering with the church at all levels," she said, noting that such partnering "will help increase our mutual understanding and respect, which should be a hallmark of how we live as a church."
Sr. Keehan's talk preceded a panel discussion addressing relationships between CHA and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Those relations were strained last year during the debate and push to pass the Affordable Care Act — legislation opposed by the bishops. For the panel discussion, "Collaborating with the Church," Sr. Keehan was joined by four CHA board members: M. Colleen Scanlon, senior vice president of advocacy for Denver-based Catholic Health Initiatives; Anthony R. Tersigni, president and chief executive of Ascension Health, St. Louis, and immediate past chairman of the CHA board; Bishop Robert N. Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla.; and Bishop Kevin W. Vann of Fort Worth, Texas, episcopal liaison between CHA and USCCB. At the assembly, Scanlon, a former CHA board chair, ended her term on the board and Tersigni succeeded her as speaker of the membership assembly.
Scanlon said supporting passage of the Affordable Care Act had been among the board's most significant accomplishments during her term. "We should be proud of our contributions to its success," she said. At the same time, she said, the "misunderstandings, different interpretations, particularly around the adequacy of the prohibition on federal funding for abortion," had led to some painful times for the ministry.
As a result, she said, the board promised at the 2010 assembly and repeatedly during the past year "that we would work to try to build relationships that maybe had become fragmented or even potentially broken; that we would work with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to really move forward in a positive and constructive way, knowing that we were really about the same goals and the same ends."
Bishop Lynch said he is hopeful about relations between the two organizations because, despite a rocky go in the recent past, CHA and the USCCB remain in dialogue. Mending the ties between the two organizations has been high on CHA's agenda since differences emerged over the language regarding abortion in the Affordable Care Act.
Sr. Keehan told the audience that almost immediately after the assembly the bishops and CHA were to have two important opportunities to fortify their bonds.
During the U.S. Catholic bishops' meeting June 15-17 in Seattle, Sr. Keehan met with the group's health care task force. In her assembly address, Sr. Keehan said that this task force is becoming a subcommittee of the bishops' Committee on Doctrine, a sign of the bishops' growing recognition of the important role Catholic health care plays in the church.
Discussion topics in Seattle, she said, would include the canonical status of Catholic health systems, "particularly in light of the development of public juridic persons, and the implications of for-profit Catholic health care."
Tersigni said the for-profit agenda item came about in part because of his system's decision to create Ascension Health Care Network, an enterprise aimed at building a for-profit health care system for struggling Catholic hospitals. He said the meeting will be a further step in Ascension Health's effort to be certain all canonical, theological and ethical questions related to the enterprise are addressed. "I want to make sure we get all the stakeholders involved in the discussion so we can separate fact from fiction and make sure we ameliorate anything that needs to be fixed," he said.
As Catholic Health World went to press, Sr. Keehan and the CHA board's executive committee were to meet June 27 in New York with Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the USCCB.
During the panel discussion at the assembly, both bishops on the panel praised Archbishop Dolan for his strong interest in healing the relationship between bishops and CHA and in developing stronger ties.
Despite recent difficulties, "I do believe we can move beyond them" and "work together on the challenges," Bishop Vann said. "The archbishop himself has told me that."
Bishop Lynch said he sees the relationship between CHA and the USCCB as a durable one that is improving. "Archbishop Dolan is a peacemaker, and he is interested in peace," Bishop Lynch said. "He has great respect for Sr. Carol, and for those of us on the CHA board, especially those he has known, and I think that is a very good sign."
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