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Whose Side Are They On?

By Anne Hendershott

From the earliest battles over health care, Sr. Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association (CHA) has been out on the front lines defending the plan—and attacking those who criticize her tactics.  In her most recent offensive, on March 11th, Sr. Keehan wrote a letter to the House of Representatives which urged the Members to “move quickly” to enact health reform by passing the Senate-approved legislation. This, despite the fact that the USCCB continues to reject passage of the Senate bill.

In some ways, Sr. Keehan’s letter to the House on March 11 was simply confirmation of what many of us already knew—that Sr. Keehan’s organization has been supporting the President’s plans for health care reform from the earliest days.  And, although her support for health care reform always adds the qualifier that “any health care reform package will provide no federal funding for abortion,” she must know, as the Bishops continue to point out, that unless a “correction” is applied to the Senate bill, the bill she is defending will greatly expand public funding for abortion.

But, during the past year, anyone who even implies that Sr. Keehan’s organization has broken with the Bishops on health care reform, is vulnerable to attack by Sr. Keehan and her staff.  Indeed, she has rallied her troops on several occasions during the past year to attack journalists who have pointed out the ambiguity in her press releases, videos, and public statements.  For example, when I published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last October claiming that the Catholic Health Association was supporting the President’s plan, Fred Caesar, Sr. Keehan’s special assistant, was not content with simply demanding a retraction, but Mr. Caesar sent letters of complaint to my employers, in a not so subtle strategy, to silence anyone critical of the CHA.

There were several journalists who were similarly “corrected” by the Catholic Health Association.  David D. Kirkpatrick, a New York Times reporter, was so convinced that the CHA strongly supported the President’s health plan that he published an article on August 28 declaring just that. But, the New York Times corrected that article on its website on August 29, claiming that its reporter “overstated the support” of the Catholic Health Association for the President’s plans.”

Much of the media confusion began when the CHA posted a video entitled “I Can’t Wait…for Health Reform.” The video opens with a film clip of President Obama giving a speech in which he declares: “Health care reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year.” And, following President Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress where he offered reassurance that  “no federal funds will be used for abortion, ” the CHA produced yet another puzzling video that again appeared to support the President’s plan.    In it, Sr. Keehan states: “I could not help but think of the speech I heard from President Obama last night while sitting in the House Chamber, on how important health reform is for our economy, not just for the poor, but for our middle class, and for our businesses…I was so heartened to hear our President say that no federal funds will be used for abortion.”

But why was she “heartened” by it? Her claim was specious. As Cardinal Justin Rigali, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities, wrote in an August 11 letter to Congress addressing defects in the “America’s Affordable Health Choices Act,” funds authorized by this legislation would still be eligible to cover abortion since the Hyde Amendment—which bans federal financing of abortion—is not applicable to it. Also, he wrote, the funds authorized by the legislation are “fungible” and “will subsidize the operating budget and provider networks that expand access to abortions.”

When Sr. Keehan’s video statement cited the importance of health care reform “to businesses,” she may have been referring to the health care businesses she represents. As their representative, Sr. Keehan joins the more than 3,000 health care reform lobbyists on the Hill. And although Catholic hospitals and Catholic long-term care facilities were created to serve the poor, and most of them do a fine job of doing so, the Wall Street Journal revealed recently that some non-profit Catholic health care organizations have become very lucrative.  In 2008, the Journal published a series on the transformation of non-profit hospitals into what the series’ reporters called “profit machines.” The Journal pointed out that “Ascension Health, a Catholic non-profit health care system that runs 65 hospitals, mostly in the Midwest and Northeast, reported net income of $1.2 billion in its fiscal year ending June 30, 2007, and cash and investments of $7.4 billion…more than many large publicly traded companies…more cash than Walt Disney Co. has.”

Some of the top executives at CHA’s member institutions—the Catholic hospital presidents and chief executive officers of Catholic health care organizations—are among the highest paid hospital administrators in the country, and some of them sit on CHA’s board. Lloyd Dean, the CEO of Catholic Healthcare West, became chair of the CHA in the spring of 2008. In 2006, Dean received a salary of $5.3 million from Catholic Healthcare West, a hospital system based in San Francisco. Dean’s salary included the forgiveness of Dean’s $782,541 housing loan. According to Healthcare West, Dean’s compensation “reflects his skill in turning the hospital system around financially.”

These hospitals have much to gain by helping to pass President Obama’s health care reform. On September 8, 2009, Lloyd Dean’s Catholic Healthcare West unveiled a multi-faceted campaign entitled “September for Reform” which marshaled its significant resources to support the President’s health care reform. But concerns about abortion or end-of-life care issues are not mentioned. A June 17, 2009 Catholic Healthcare West blog entry says:  “We have been longtime supporters of health care reform. We took our first official position in support of universal access in 1992 and in 2003 we established four principles for reform: universal access, stable financing, and improved quality and accountability.” Catholics might be discouraged to find that respect for life from conception to natural death is not included in these four principles for reform.

Dean is not alone in receiving what most readers might conclude is a generous salary. According to the Wall Street Journal, Ascension Health paid its CEO an annual salary of $3.3 million. Like lobbyists on Capitol Hill, advocates representing Catholic hospitals in the health care reform debate are also paid well. Although Sr. Keehan’s $856,093 salary in 2006 (up from $654,915 in 2005) was paid directly to her religious order, according to the CHA’s 2007 IRS 990 report, several key employees at her organization received salaries of more than $300,000. Michael Rodgers, senior VP of advocacy, was paid $316,806 in 2006. Lisa Gilden, general counsel, was paid $325,206. Rhonda Mueller, VP of finance, was paid $268,873, and even Fred Caesar, Sr. Keehan’s special assistant made $198,212 in 2006. These health care reform advocates know that the single biggest variable for non-profit hospitals is how well insured the patient population is.

Faithful Catholics expect that advocates like Sr. Keehan remain faithful to the Church’s mission of protecting the unborn, the elderly, and those who cannot speak for themselves.  Breaking with the Bishops in advocating passage of the Senate bill has created confusion for Catholics and has given lawmakers “permission” to pass a bill that will greatly expand the rates of abortion.

The Catholic Advocate community can also read Ann Hendershot’s earlier piece on this topic entitled “Health-Care Reform and the President’s Faithful Helpers” published October 15, 2009 in the Wall Street Journal.

Anne Hendershott is chair of the Politics, Philosophy, and Economics Program at The King’s College in New York City, and the author of Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education (Transaction).

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One Response to Whose Side Are They On?

  1. Julianne Wiley says:

    Sr. Keehan’s $856,093 salary

    My father used to say, \"If that\’s poverty, I\’d like to see the chastity.\"

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