New governance model for Caritas Christi

BRIGHTON -- Archdiocese of Boston officials responded to the attorney general’s report on Caritas Christi Health Care, released March 6, by restating their commitment to strengthen its heath care system.

Attorney General Martha Coakley, whose office is responsible for the oversight of nonprofit hospitals through its Public Charities Division, said in a statement, “We appreciate the cooperation we received from Caritas management and the board of governors during this review process, and we hope that the resulting report is helpful to them as they continue their work to serve the community.”

The attorney general’s report which was the result of a review by Philadelphia health care management consulting firm Health Strategies & Solutions, Inc., “identifies four priority issues facing Caritas: the role, structure, and effectiveness of governance; the future of Caritas Carney Hospital, the role of Caritas St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center, and the operating performance of the Caritas Physician Network.”

Among the recommendations made in the report are that the archdiocese relinquish direct control of the Caritas Christi Health Care System; that behavioral and ambulatory health services be expanded at Carney Hospital; and that the system’s flagship St. Elizabeth’s Hospital should continue its realignment as a community teaching hospital.

In a joint letter also released March 6, Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley and James Karam, chair of the Caritas board, said Caritas has made “significant progress” toward continuing to provide quality Catholic health care long into the future. Changes have already been made to the system’s board, based on recommendations from the Governance Review Committee, established last October.

“It is our conviction that these changes strengthen our commitment to providing health care in the model of the healing ministry of Christ, with fidelity to the intellectual and moral dimensions of the Catholic tradition and the highest quality pastoral care,” they said.

Caritas Christi Health Care, established in 1985, is the second largest health care system in New England. It is made up of six hospitals in Brighton, Brockton, Dorchester, Fall River, Methuen and Norwood.

As with other successful Catholic health care systems in the United States, Caritas now has an independent board and senior management that will be responsible for the systems’ business decisions, Cardinal O’Malley and Karam said.

The archdiocese will limit its involvement with Caritas to “matters pertaining to Catholic identity, mission and the implementation of the religious and ethical directives of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops” and “any transaction that would involve the sale or transfer of the system,” they said.

The vicar general and chancellor of the archdiocese will no longer serve on the system’s board, but Father J. Bryan Hehir has been appointed as the archdiocesan liaison to Caritas and a member of the Caritas board. His previous post as secretary of social services has now been expanded to secretary of health and social services, they added.

Father Hehir told The Pilot that Coakley rightly recognized the need for a strong board and her advice corresponds with actions that have already been taken, including a strategic review of the system by Chicago-based firm Navigant Consulting.

The Archdiocese of Boston authorized the review in November 2006. Its goals were to develop strategies to provide the best possible health care, strengthen financial stability, respect those who provide health care and maintain fidelity to the moral tradition of Catholic health care.

The archdiocese appointed a Strategic Review Committee, which recommended affiliation with a major Catholic health care system, but efforts to do so were unsuccessful.

In November 2007, media reports questioned the financial health of the Caritas Christi system, prompting reaction from the attorney general’s office and the review that led to the March 6 report.

At the time, Dr. John Chessare, interim president of Caritas, stood by the vitality of the system, saying that the media generated a myth that the system is floundering.

Caritas completed its third profitable year Sept. 30, 2007, following six consecutive years of losses. The only hospital to finish in the red in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 was Caritas Carney Hospital in Dorchester. Chessare attributed Carney’s performance to the fact that Carney serves a low-income population.

Father Hehir said the new governance model will ground the system in its Catholic identity and enhance the role of the board while retaining the cardinal’s role as the principal religious and moral teacher in the archdiocese.

The changes will also help Caritas face the challenges inherent to any health care system, he said.

“The attorney general makes the point that running health care is a complicated business,” he said. “We fully agree with that.”