The planned breakup of Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare is the latest example of how the demographics of declining religious orders remain a major factor driving healthcare delivery system consolidation.
The Wheaton Franciscan sisters, who founded the now 14-hospital Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare, announced a letter of intent Thursday to transfer its Southeast Wisconsin hospitals to Ascension, the nation's largest Catholic health system. Meanwhile, Mercy Health Network will acquire Wheaton Franciscan's Iowa healthcare operations and Chicago-based Northwestern Medicine will acquire Wheaton Franciscan's Illinois rehabilitation hospital.
The sisters' decision is not surprising given the aging and shrinking population of women in religious orders in the United States, trends that have prompted similar healthcare deals for decades. Roughly 90% of the nation's Catholic sisters were age 60 or older in 2009 with their ranks down to 48,500 from about 180,000 in 1965.
“The choice to transfer our ministries ensures that the needs of the times will continue to be addressed in each community,” said Sister Pat Norton, chair of the sponsor member board for Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare. The order has been involved in health-related community service for over 140 years.
Catholic health leaders in religious congregations recognized the demographic trends decades ago and began to prepare for the leadership change that would follow at Catholic hospitals, schools and social service agencies, said Sister Carol Keehan, CEO of the Catholic Health Association.
Major Catholic health systems today including Ascension, based in St. Louis, have grown as a result of planning by religious communities to strengthen management of Catholic healthcare “even when there are not enough sisters” to manage as they once did, she said.
The Wheaton Franciscan announcement is the latest example of that trend, but it is notable for the fact that more than one organization will acquire the system's assets.
She praised the sisters for the decision to identify multiple partners, instead of trying to find one partner capable of managing all of Wheaton Franciscan's facilities. “It is a lot of creativity on the part of the sisters,” she said. “They spent a lot of time sorting that out.”
Many congregations work to educate and train new leadership to carry on Catholic sisters' original missions when there has to be a changeover in ownership and leadership. “In the past, sisters would be present in large numbers in most of our sponsored works,” said Sister Annmarie Sanders, director of communications for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 80% of the 57,000 women who belong to Catholic religious orders in the U.S. Now sisters must find other ways to assure that mission and their values continue, she said.
For Ascension, the acquisition of eight new hospitals would represent a major expansion of its operations in Wisconsin, where the health system already has 19 hospitals. The deal is expected to close next year.
“Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare and Ascension share the same mission—caring for all persons, especially those who are struggling the most,” Robert Henkel, CEO of Ascension Health, the company's healthcare delivery subsidiary, said in the release.