If it seems like Sister Mary Gerald Hartney has been around healthcare forever, that's understandable.
Since early in the last century, the 91-year-old Roman Catholic nun-everyone calls her Sister Gerald-has been a driving force in healthcare finance, a visionary who inspired and taught thousands.
"If anyone deserves to be included in the Health Care Hall of Fame, Sister Gerald does," says David Felsenthal, executive vice president of Chicago-based Wellspring Valuation, who has known Sister Gerald for more than 53 years.
"She was way ahead of her time," Felsenthal says. "She was doing cost accounting for her hospitals and figuring out the actual cost of operating a department years before anyone else."
The Irish immigrant practiced accounting and taught cost accounting to Catholic hospital staffers decades before Medicare was born, let alone before the program required it.
She instituted internal controls to prevent fraud and abuse long before those terms became common in the industry. And she was responsible for thousands of Roman Catholic nuns becoming eligible for Social Security benefits through a 1966 act of Congress.
In a nominating letter, Sister Maurita Sengelaub, healthcare trustee for the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas in Detroit, characterized Sister Gerald as "the financial guru of the Catholic Health Association, an educator, a lecturer and a prophet . . . who enabled the many Catholic religious congregations involved in healthcare and their institutions to enter the 21st century with the best tools, technology andfinancial accounting systems.
"She was the forerunner of all that related to the best stewardship of all material and financial resources including cost accounting, centralized purchasing, financial investments, cash management and the mortgaging of assets in order to expand the Catholic health ministry with integrity, honesty and a direct forthrightness," Sengelaub wrote.
Richard Clarke, president and chief executive officer of the Healthcare Financial Management Association, says that for more than a half-century Sister Gerald was active on the national level and was influential, not just in the formation of professional associations but in the practice of hospital finance.
"She is a high-energy, passionate woman who helped many to understand the complexities and issues of healthcare finance," says Clarke, whose association honored Sister Gerald by naming an award after her.
Clarke praises the "selfless efforts of this little lady in trying to make the world a better place. She's been a teacher and mentor to thousands around the world."
Sister Gerald helped form the HFMA, which began as the American Association of Hospital Accountants, and served as its first woman president from 1954 to 1955. She was also instrumental in launching the association's certification program shortly after that.
But Sister Gerald considers her greatest accomplishment to be her role in helping her fellow nuns qualify for compensation for their work. Because they swore a vow of poverty and were not considered employees under federal law, nuns around the country had been ineligiblefor Social Security benefits since the program's inception in 1935, despite having worked for decades in Catholic schools, hospitals and nursing homes for little or no direct income. Sister Gerald conducted a study demonstrating the value of that work and the fairness of compensating religious orders for the work their members did.
"That helped many of the retired sisters in living a fulfilling life after retirement," Wellspring's Felsenthal says.
"I was an instrument of God," she says modestly. "I came up with the idea, and things happened."
Sister Gerald is a petite, fast-talking woman whose mind races with ideas and a drive that belies her years. Recovering in a South Bend convent from a fall last year that broke her neck and leg, she is completing her autobiography, "God Called an Irish Girl."
"It's been a very exciting life," she says in a soft brogue. "I never looked at religious life as an obligation, but an opportunity. My task was to serve the people of God, and that was what motivated me."
Sister Gerald was born in 1910 in Limerick, Ireland. When she was 12 an explosion during the civil war after the Irish Revolution killed her mother. Her father was a hero of that war. At the age of 19, Sister Gerald joined the Sisters of the Holy Cross in 1929.
"I thought I'd be teaching or nursing," she recalls. "But my superior discovered that I had a flair for administration. I told her it was a mistake, that wasn't what I wanted to do. I could never sit by a desk. God didn't call me for that. My superior suggested I throw myself into the arms of God and let him guide what I do for my people, to leave it all up to him. And that changed my whole life. What I didn't know then is that I would be serving God on every continent except Australia."
In Sister Gerald's long career, many other accomplishments stand out, including receiving the highest award that's given to nonordained Catholics, the Pro Pontifice et Ecclesiae,which she received from Pope John Paul II in 1982 for her contributions to healthcare.
She taught healthcare finance at Indiana University and other colleges, served as a consultant for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., spent 24 years in top administrative posts with her religious order and was CEO and chief financial officer for several Catholic hospitals. She has traveled throughout the U.S., plus Africa, Canada, Central and South America, Europe and the Holy Land, teaching, leading hospitals and ministering.
Ever the optimist, Sister Gerald says she is not worried that fewer women are joining religious orders.
"As I've grown older, I've discovered it's not important who teaches, but that it's being taught," she says. "I thank God that now the sisters can be freed to do the things that their religious missions intended. I'm delighting in what's happening. God touches everyone and everything. We are being replaced by lay professionals because God wants us to do things no one else is doing."