In matters of health care, what's Catholic got to do with it?
Before I became a writer and editor, I trained and worked as a hospital chaplain. When I was doing my training, I spent most of my clinical hours in a Catholic hospital. But the hospital where I worked had not always been a Catholic hospital. In fact, it had been founded as "Protestant" hospital, particularly to be a hospital in the area that was Christian, but definitely not Catholic.
Then, about ten years ago, the hospital merged with a Catholic hospital conglomerate and so became a Catholic hospital. The decision to join a Catholic hospital system was a fiscal decision, not a faith-based decision. Located in the deep(ish) south, the hospital was full of employees (associates) who were mostly not Catholic. The pastoral care staff was mostly Baptist. And most of the patients were some brand of Protestant (mostly Baptist). Even the culture of this nominally Catholic hospital was definitely more Protestant than Catholic.
I mention this story because I came across this column from The Seattle Times today. In it, the author, Danny Westneat, asks the question "Why are we turning our health care over to the Catholic Church?" He goes on to make the argument that we would not turn the public education system over to the Catholic church, so we should not be turning our health care system over to the Catholic Church. In particular, Mr. Westneat objects to the fact that Catholic health systems impose Catholic social teaching and morals on both their employees and on their patients.
While I am intrigued by Mr. Westneat's question and his conclusion, I believe, in the end, that he is asking the wrong question. The reason there have been so many mergers that partner Catholic health systems with other health systems (in the article, Mr. Westneat is objecting to the partnership between the University of Washington and PeaceHealth systems) is because it is fiscally advantageous. Large, multi-hospital conglomerates are usually in a better position when it comes to negotiating prices with insurance companies. Therefore, they can keep costs down (or as "down" as costs get in the U.S.). (If you want to learn way more than you ever wanted to know about the health insurance industry, our friends over at This American Life dedicated an episode to explaining it back in 2009.)
This is all, of course, ignoring the fact that Catholic health systems are becoming less distinctively "Catholic." Catholic Healthcare West, for example changed its name last year to Dignity Health. The boards of these hospitals are more and more looking like the typical board of directors of any large non-profit organization, and less like convents and monasteries. Furthermore, the USCCB really has no official authority when it comes to Catholic hospitals. Take, for example, St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix, AZ. The only authority that the Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted had was to strip the hospital of its "Catholic" status. The hospital still operates, treats patients, functions, and remains a part of Dignity Health. So Mr. Westneat's fear that the USCCB is taking over health care is unfounded in this case. What he maybe should be concerned about is the power of the group as a lobbying entity, where they have power over collective health care decisions much more than they do over individuals in hospitals. Finally, it is the case that sometimes Catholic hospital systems are being bought out by secular health care systems, as when the Catholic healthcare system Caritas Christi was bought by the private equity firm Cerebus Capital Management. The formerly non-profit Catholic health care system is now a for-profit hospital conglomerate.
Mr. Westneat ought, therefore, to be asking how it is that we have ended up in a system that favors huge, multi-hospital systems - hospital systems that are likely to keep getting bigger in order to manage the financial risk that goes along with providing health care to a population who may or may not be able to pay for services rendered. We all ought to be asking why insurance companies have so much power that they can (and do) dictate costs. We ought to ask, perhaps, why it is that families in the U.S. are needing to spend more on health care than they do on food in a year. These are the questions that have a greater impact both on our lives now (in and out of the hospital) and on our future as a nation.
Image: Sisters of St. Francis in 1886 at the Branch Hospital for Lepers. Wikimedia Commons.