A Roman Catholic hospital in Chicago will lose its Catholic status if it joins a managed-care network led by University of Chicago Hospitals, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin said last week.
But religious sisters of the order sponsoring St. Elizabeth's Hospital on Chicago's West Side said they hope to maintain the Catholic identity they have held for more than 100 years, saying it's "not merely a sign on the door."
Bernardin, who heads the Archdiocese of Chicago, has begun taking steps to strip 240-bed St. Elizabeth's of its Catholic identity. He contends the affiliation with Chicago Health System would compete with and harm the business dealings of Unified Health Care Network, a Chicago-based managed-care plan formed last year by seven Chicago-area Catholic hospitals.
"It's not the cardinal's style to be punitive, but on the other hand, he has to fulfill responsibilities to the ministry in the entire archdiocese," said the Rev. Michael Place, Bernardin's adviser on healthcare issues.
The cardinal's ruling would allow the hospital to keep operating, but it wouldn't be able to do so as a Catholic institution. Leaders of each diocese decide those matters.
"We learned long ago that our Catholic identity is not merely a sign on the door, but the way we can best live out our mission is to serve to poor," said a statement from Ancilla Systems and its sponsor, Donaldson, Ind.-based Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ. St. Elizabeth's is one of Hobart, Ind.-based Ancilla's seven hospitals.
Bernardin has been adamant about Catholic hospitals abiding by protocols he issued two years ago. Those protocols, which have been adopted by many other dioceses across the country, warn against business ventures with investor-owned healthcare chains and warn against "undue competition."
"One cannot bring unnecessary harm to another Catholic institution," Place said. "This particular arrangement would threaten the well-being of neighboring hospitals."
St. Elizabeth's has signed a letter of intent to join Chicago Health System, a managed-care joint venture that includes University of Chicago Hospitals, MacNeal Hospital in Berwyn, Ill., and various related physician groups and outpatient facilities.
"Serving the people with a particular sensitivity to the underserved and disadvantaged is the very foundation of our congregation's ministry," said Sister Annemarie Kampwerth, provincial of Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ. "The strength of this network arrangement with the Chicago Health System will safeguard this mission as well as build healthy communities where we serve."
At least two Catholic hospitals have joined up with non-Catholic competitors of the network. Oak Park (Ill.) Hospital and Holy Family Medical Center in Des Plaines, Ill., are a part of the Rush System for Health, which is anchored by a major academic medical center and competitor of Unified's Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Ill., and Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago.
But the archdiocese has said they were allowed to affiliate with Rush long before the cardinal issued his protocols in August 1994.
Executives at St. Elizabeth's said the hospital can tap a larger managed-care market. Chicago Health System manages the healthcare of nearly 150,000 people.
In addition, the fate of the 23 religious sisters who are part of Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ in the Chicago Archdiocese also remained unclear. Those sisters could be prevented from serving in ministries in the archdiocese although their work outside Bernardin's jurisdiction is unaffected. "Everything is on the table," Place said.
St. Elizabeth's has been a profitable hospital, earning net income of $9.9 million on net revenues of $75.2 million in 1994, the latest year for which financial figures were available from HCIA, a Baltimore-based healthcare information company.
Three years ago, St. Elizabeth's participated in a network feasibility study with 16 other Catholic hospitals in the Chicago Archdiocese but decided not to pursue that venture, which ultimately led to the formation of Unified. There are 20 Catholic hospitals in the archdiocese.
University of Chicago Hospitals has attempted affiliations with other Catholic hospitals. Last year, Mercy Hospital and Medical Center on Chicago's South Side withdrew from a letter of intent with the university.