Fewer than five years ago, the American healthcare system was in acute distress. Nearly 50 million people were uninsured and anyone could be denied coverage because they had a pre-existing condition. Bankruptcy often became the only option for so many whose medical expenses had overwhelmed them. Thousands died each year because they did not have adequate health insurance.
Systemic costs soared and high premiums put insurance out of reach for too many American families. Meanwhile, clinical outcomes were weaker here than in other industrialized nations. It was a scary and unsustainable plotline in the story of America's healthcare system.
Now, we are writing a new chapter. Instead of measuring the coverage gaps and counting the medical bankruptcies, we are witnessing a reduction in the growth rate of healthcare spending (the Urban Institute predicts that national health expenditures will decrease by nearly 11% between now and 2019) and beginning to reward the quality of care instead of the quantity. Most importantly, we are counting the newly insured—at least 20 million since the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010—instead of the newly uninsured.
By any measure, open enrollment in 2013 and 2014 represented the most complex health insurance sign-up since Medicare. Catholic hospitals held enrollment events, TV telethons and community meetings. They secured sponsorships and worked with partners to promote coverage and explain the new insurance choices available. Along with coalitions and other groups, including Enroll America, Catholic healthcare organizations made it a priority to secure coverage for those who were eligible.
For women, affordable insurance means receiving excellent prenatal care, routine cancer screenings and needed counseling services. It means having peace of mind that their children's medical needs are being met without placing a major burden on the family. It means routine illnesses do not mean days away from work. It means health security.
Today, Catholic healthcare serves one in six patients admitted to a hospital, carrying on a centuries-long legacy of service. One of the earliest chapters of America's healthcare history tells of the Catholic sisters from France who arrived in New Orleans in 1727. The sisters brought with them very little other than a vision to fill unmet need. They identified those who were vulnerable and cared for them in whatever ways were required.
Their work, often backbreaking and ungratifying, continued despite the challenges of disease, drought and difficult economic conditions. They persevered because it was their mission.
The nuns built clinics and traversed impossible territory. They showed amazing stamina and creativity, finding every way they could to fund their operations and establish medical outposts that could serve a growing nation. Ultimately, the sisters built what would become one of the largest not-for-profit healthcare systems in the world. And what today is called a community health needs assessment was once what the sisters called “find the need and go there.” I am proud to represent this group of care providers under the umbrella of the Catholic Health Association.
We stand on the shoulders of the pioneering women who founded Catholic healthcare in the U.S. From coast to coast every day, the people of Catholic healthcare are protecting life and human dignity, ensuring everyone has access from conception until natural death.
They are counseling the parents of a premature baby. They are offering spiritual guidance to the cancer patient seeking answers. They are teaching the new mother how to feed her infant. They are greeting the visitor walking through the hospital doors.
From senior management to custodial staff, many of the people of Catholic healthcare choose their employer because mission matters, because they want to work in a place where patients are the priority, where the care is outstanding and where staff members support one another.
As we write the next chapter in America's healthcare story, we do so with a new landscape and a fresh opportunity. With millions more now covered, we can be newly creative about ensuring the best care for women, minorities, seniors, children and anyone who might be on the margin.
We can focus on improving the delivery system instead of wondering how to expand access to it. Let's continue to work toward an American healthcare system that is second to none. And in which none are left out.