Some partnerships between Catholic and non-Catholic hospitals could become more difficult--or even impossible--as a result of proposed revisions to the church rules governing such deals.
The partnership deals in question provide special business arrangements to distance the Catholic hospital, so the non-Catholic facility can continue providing sterilization services in a community. Sterilizations are prohibited by the Roman Catholic Church for both men and women.
"I think there's a lot of nervousness in a lot of different systems," said the Rev. Dennis Brodeur, senior vice president of stewardship at St. Louis-based SSM Health Care.
The situation should be especially worrisome to non-Catholic hospitals that have deals with Catholic hospitals or systems. "The realization that the (rules) can change and become stricter should be a considerable source of worry to the boards of directors at non-Catholic facilities," said Lois Uttley, director of MergerWatch, an Albany, N.Y.-based group that monitors Catholic and non-Catholic hospital mergers for their effect on women's services.
Discussion of any proposed revisions to the rules--Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services--is expected to be on the agenda next month when U.S. Roman Catholic bishops gather in Washington for the annual meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
A small working group that includes one archbishop and one bishop already has produced a draft of proposed changes to the rules, which was then revised following suggestions from other bishops.
A vote on any changes isn't expected until the bishops meet again in June 2001 in Atlanta for their business meeting.
The vote was extended to allow for more discussion among bishops and healthcare leaders about the proposed changes.
The Rev. Michael Place, president and chief executive officer of St. Louis-based Catholic Health Association, said talk about revising the directives started because the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith expressed concerns about the misapplication of church rules in some partnerships. The congregation of senior church leaders assists the pope in overseeing Catholic doctrine.
The group has asked the U.S. bishops to address any problems, Place said.
The Vatican has put the kibosh on partnership deals in the past.
For example, 308-bed St. Vincent Doctors Hospital, a Catholic Health Initiatives hospital in Little Rock, Ark., last year ended a deal it had with physicians who were leasing space inside the hospital to provide elective sterilization services to women who delivered babies there.
The arrangement at St. Vincent ended after the local bishop, who originally approved the deal, asked Vatican officials for additional review. The hospital entered the lease deal because of patient demand.
As the issue has gained steam, the CHA has been a leader in discussing the proposed changes and their impact with bishops.
The association, along with Catholic healthcare leaders, met with several bishops at a Sept. 14 meeting in Washington about the proposed revisions.
A CHA-generated memo paints several doomsday scenarios should the rules be revised as proposed. They include the undoing of partnerships; loss of Catholic sole provider hospitals; discontinuation of OB/GYN services in many Catholic hospitals; increased anti-Catholic sentiment; alienation of Catholic healthcare from other providers, patients and payers; and the elimination of Catholic healthcare in some areas.