By LISA EISENHAUER
June 25, 2020
Although the pandemic kept health ministry leaders from gathering in person at CHA's annual Catholic Health Assembly for the first time in 105 years, hundreds convened online June 8 for an inspiring and forward-looking virtual version of the event.
At 90 minutes, the online gathering was a much-shortened stand-in for the planned 2½-day meeting in Atlanta. Nevertheless, it served to rally senior leaders of Catholic health systems and hospitals across the U.S. who along with health care workers everywhere have spent most of the year fighting the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus and grappling with the pandemic's toll on lives, communities and economies.
"The founders of our health ministries had the courage to move beyond their known reality. They responded to God's call and trusted in God's abiding presence,"Sr. Mary Haddad, RSM, CHA's president and chief executive officer, said in her opening remarks. "Today, we, too, are called to trust God; to embrace what is emerging in Catholic health care; and to have the courage to step through the threshold into a new reality."
Workers at risk
"I'd like to begin by recognizing all the heath care workers who have given so much in service to those impacted by COVID-19," Sr. Mary said in her comments, which followed a video homage to the staff of Catholic hospitals and nursing homes caring for patients with COVID-19. "On behalf of the entire ministry, I offer our heartfelt appreciation and gratitude."
Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, gave the opening reflection at CHA's virtual assembly. He thanked health care workers on the front lines of the pandemic.
She compared their selfless service to that of the religious women who founded and sustained Catholic health care during times of national crisis, including the Civil War and the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.
"Our response to this pandemic demonstrates that the mission of Catholic health care has never been stronger," Sr. Mary said.
She added that the Catholic ministry continues the healing ministry of Jesus in many ways, including through compassionate care for patients and families; its demand for an ethical allocation of coronavirus tests, medical supplies and other resources; and its advocacy for funding to support Medicaid, long-term care, safety net hospitals and affordable health insurance.
The assembly's opening reflection was given by Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Before offering a prayer for all those suffering from the pandemic, he addressed those health care workers on the front lines saying, "I hope you know how grateful we are and how much we are indebted to you."
Disparities and protests
Sr. Mary said that COVID-19 has underscored the disparities in health outcomes based on race and economic status. She noted that the mortality rate of black Americans from the virus has been 2.4 times that of white Americans. She also noted that nursing home patients have died at a disproportionately high rate from the virus than the population at large.
"COVID didn't teach us anything we didn't already know, but it has fueled our will to act," Sr. Mary said. "And as an essential ministry of the church, we are impelled to act and bring our communities to wholeness."
Sr. Mary also referenced the courage of peaceful protesters who have taken to the streets across the nation since late May demanding an end to police brutality against blacks and changes in policing practices and budgets. "It takes courage to change our perceptions and to walk in solidarity with those crying out for change," she said.
Strategic plan revised
Kevin Sexton, outgoing board chair, listed some of the highlights of the last year for CHA. One was the work under way to draft the next strategic plan for the association. Sexton, the retired president and chief executive officer of Holy Cross Health, said the "four overriding strategic directions" of the plan are:
- Increase access to health care, especially for the poor.
- Enhance the health of the communities served by Catholic health care.
- Help CHA member institutions and systems to thrive.
- Speak to and strengthen the Catholic identity of health ministries.
"Our original goal was to provide you with a completed plan at this meeting, but the board has wisely determined that the tactics behind these strategic directions should be finalized after taking stock of the post-COVID world," Sexton told the audience. He added that the crisis has revealed not only the disparities for the poor and for people of color in the nation's health care system but shortcomings in how the system is financed that shift costs and prioritize market strength over improved health. He said flawed financing policies have led to skyrocketing Medicare and Medicaid spending that dwarfs spending in areas that also are critically important to health, including education and housing.
Sr. Mary Haddad, RSM, CHA president and chief executive officer; Julie S. Manas, CHA's new board chair and president of Ascension St. Vincent North Region; and Kevin Sexton, the association's outgoing chair, share the screen during CHA's virtual Catholic Health Assembly on June 8.
"We must confront this challenge of matching resources to our most important mission aims, but we do so at a time of great risk to the institutions we love," Sexton said. "As a result of COVID, many need immediate help and CHA will advocate for that help.
"At the same time, we need courage to push for broader long-term change as a society, a government, and an industry or we will not, with the best of intentions or individual actions, make our society sufficiently healthy or fair."
Julie S. Manas, president of Ascension St. Vincent North Region, was commissioned for a one-year term as CHA's board chair.
Manas expressed confidence that Catholic health ministries will withstand the current challenges. For inspiration, she cited what she said was one of her favorite Bible passages, Jeremiah 29:11: "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you, and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."
Manas said the pandemic has cost lives, including that of her brother-in-law, shuttered businesses, put people out of work and taken away the health insurance of many. But she noted that it has prompted remarkable displays of heroism and compassion, such as the stories of nurses in Catholic hospitals gently bracing the hands of their patients weakened by COVID-19 so they can see and hear family members via FaceTime. Manas said that COVID-19 spurred rapid changes in health care delivery infrastructure that enabled physicians to shift patients to virtual office visits, a shift that was implemented with remarkable speed.
"I have never been more proud to be a part of our Catholic health system, for all of those heartwarming, and heartbreaking experiences," she said.
Many hospitals are operating under financial duress related to the pandemic. Manas said it is important that Catholic hospitals survive and thrive. She noted that one in seven hospital patients, many of them "poor, vulnerable, marginalized and voiceless," receive care in a Catholic facility.
"Yes, it will be difficult. Yes, we are up for the challenge," she said. "And yes, here we are, taking one day at a time."
Other highlights of the assembly included videotaped messages from three CHA board members: Karen Reich, Dr. Rhonda Medows and Darryl Robinson. (See sidebar.)
Futurist Jamie Metzl said in his keynote presentation that U.S. health care could be on the verge of transformative change and that Catholic providers should play an active role in making sure that change advances the common good and benefits the poor and vulnerable.
CHA board members point toward a sharper focus on social justice
The coronavirus pandemic that has been fundamentally altering life in the U.S. for months and the civil unrest that has been shaking the nation for weeks are adding urgency to long-standing failings in the health system and introducing unexpected challenges.
In comments delivered during the virtual Catholic Health Assembly June 8, CHA leadership provided indications about how the association likely will sharpen its focus on social justice, particularly as it relates to addressing health disparities, improving health care access and creating more diverse workplaces.
Kevin Sexton, outgoing CHA board chair, incoming speaker of the organization's Membership Assembly and retired president and chief executive of Holy Cross Health of Silver Spring, Maryland, said what the nation needs is "major healing change. We in Catholic health care have a great opportunity to contribute to that change, and we must respond. I believe we will."
Sr. Mary Haddad, RSM, CHA president and chief executive officer, said Catholic health care will "need to be strategic and more intentional about providing access to care for everyone in our communities."
Julie S. Manas, incoming CHA board chair and president of Ascension St. Vincent's North Region, said that in line with CHA's goal to reduce health care disparities in the U.S., the board will meet in late July to discuss how the association and its members can best address disparities — not just with words, but also with action.
Sexton said Catholic health care systems and facilities must begin, or deepen, efforts to hire, promote and train a diverse staff. The ministry must always ensure diverse voices are heard in decision-making including on frontlines as the care is delivered.
Sexton said it's important that Catholic health providers locate their services in communities most in need and that they thoroughly evaluate how and why health outcomes differ among populations in order to address root causes of those disparities.
CHA and its members must continue to advocate at every level of government for policies that root out institutional racism, he said. "We'll be most effective when we advocate for the common good."
Elevating long-term care
During the virtual assembly three CHA board members offered insights and framed concerns in prerecorded remarks that Sexton and Manas responded to live.
Outgoing CHA board member Karen Reich called for the nation to prioritize the well-being of vulnerable elders, rather than downplaying their needs.
Reich, chief executive and system senior services executive for Bon Secours St. Petersburg Health System of St. Petersburg, Florida, discussed the especially harsh toll that the pandemic has taken on frail patients in long-term-care facilities and what is needed now to safeguard patients and staff. Her recommendations include prioritizing the availability and distribution of personal protective equipment to long-term care providers and widespread and frequent coronavirus testing of all residents and staff.
Reich also said long-term care sites need better guidance on reopening and that, over the longer term, these facilities will need to have their liability concerns addressed.
Manas said that the ministry needs to support long-term care institutions and ensure elders have a voice, especially in Catholic health care.
Sexton agreed that long-term care must be respected as a vital part of the health care system. He said a big issue to pay attention to as a policy priority is making sure long-term care facilities are paid in a fair manner by government insurers. And, he noted, the reimbursement should be linked more closely with quality indicators.
Expanding technology use
Dr. Rhonda Medows is the association's board chair-elect and president of population health management for Providence St. Joseph Health of Renton, Washington. She said in a prerecorded video that the pandemic has made it clear that population health — the health and well-being of the people in communities — must remain a priority. Health inequity must be addressed, including by engaging social services, community resources and social supports, she said.
Technologies and technology applications such as telehealth, telepsychology, home monitoring and artificial intelligence can be applied to greatly expand how populations of people are cared for, Medows said.
In his video commentary, CHA board member Darryl Robinson, senior executive vice president and chief human resources officer of Chicago-based CommonSpirit Health, said that it will be important to assess what has been done right and what can be done better when it comes to the ways the ministry has been using technology to alter how it delivers care amid the pandemic. He cautioned though, that moving forward, health care providers should not let technology dominate the care experience.
"Technology should be a complement to providing great hands-on care, and frankly I think that's what makes Catholic health care unique," Robinson said.
Sexton said he is optimistic this can be done. He added that of the challenges and opportunities involved with progressing in this time of great change, "I believe Catholic health care is made for this time. Let us move forward together."
— JULIE MINDA
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