Cardinal Joseph Bernardin's battle with cancer ended last week, but the Roman Catholic leader's high-profile opposition to for-profit domination of healthcare is expected to live on as one of his legacies.
Bernardin, the head of the Chicago Archdiocese, died Nov. 14 at age 68 after a 17-month bout with pancreatic cancer. A successor has not been chosen.
"He has spoken out as a proponent of healthcare, understanding the health ministry's bigger role in the Catholic Church," said Sister Theresa Peck, president and chief executive officer of Chicago-based Catholic Health Partners. "Through his many talks and many writings, he was crystal clear on the issue."
Bernardin was at the forefront of the Catholic Health Association's crusade against an investor-owned healthcare system driven by Wall Street. CHA leaders appointed Bernardin to the group's board of directors in 1994 and watched him espouse the missions of their 570 not-for-profit hospital members.
"He's been a great gift to the Catholic healthcare ministry, and has played a unique role," said Jack Curley, president and CEO of the CHA. "He could speak knowledgeably and forceably. He really called us all to what we care about."
In a January 1995 address to the Harvard Business School Club of Chicago, Bernardin stressed the need to strengthen the not-for-profit role in healthcare delivery. "In their struggle for economic survival, a growing number of not-for-profits are sacrificing altruistic concerns for the bottom line," Bernardin said. "Should the investor-owned entity ever become the predominant form of healthcare delivery, I believe that our country will inevitably experience a sizable and substantial growth in government intervention and control."
Just days earlier, investor-owned giant Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. had announced the acquisition of three hospitals in Chicago. Columbia hasn't purchased or announced acquisitions of any acute-care not-for-profit hospitals in Chicago since Bernardin's speech.
The drive to promote not-for-profit healthcare delivery lit a fire beneath Catholic hospitals across the country as well as in Chicago.
In the last days of his 15-year reign as leader of the nation's second-largest diocese, Bernardin was given credit for bringing Catholic healthcare leaders and sponsors together, something that had been discussed often but had never happened. Bernardin urged cooperation and consolidation among the 20 Catholic hospitals in the archdiocese, which has 2.3 million Catholics and covers Cook and Lake counties in Illinois.
Bernardin didn't want Catholic hospitals in his archdiocese to compete against each other. He threatened to strip St. Elizabeth's Hospital of its Catholic status after it signed a letter of intent earlier this year to join a network sponsored by the University of Chicago Hospitals.
Seven Chicago-area Catholic hospitals answered his call, forming the Unified HealthCare Network, which will jointly pursue managed-care and other insurance contracts.
Bernardin also was a leader on medical ethics issues. A week before his death, Bernardin wrote a letter against the right to physician-assisted suicide that was submitted as a friend-of-the-court brief to the U.S. Supreme Court.