Caritas Christi president defends system’s vitality, looks to future

BRIGHTON -- Dr. John Chessare, interim president of Caritas Christi Health Care, is standing by the vitality of his health care system in the wake of recent media reports.

The reports, led by a series of articles in The Boston Globe, have questioned the financial health of the Caritas Christi system and particularly focused on the viability of Caritas Carney Hospital in Dorchester.

The media’s focus on the system has prompted reaction from the Attorney General’s Office and local politicians, including Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

“There’s a lot of mythology out there that has been generated by the media that we’re floundering,” Chessare said. “The reality is that we spent the prior six months generating three-year rolling business plans for each of our entities.”

Caritas completed its third profitable year Sept. 30 following six consecutive years of losses. The only hospital to finish in the red in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 was Caritas Carney in Dorchester.

Caritas Carney, which serves a low-income population, provides much-needed services to the Dorchester community -- the emergency room had 30,000 visits last year. But delivering quality care to the poor is difficult, Chessare said.

“Carney could be the best managed hospital in the world and still have a really hard time,” he said. “The plan for Caritas Carney at this moment is to improve its financial position by continually improving its services and offering more services.”

In a Nov. 5 letter to the Caritas community, the system’s corporate members, including Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley, said, “Much has been speculated about Caritas Carney Hospital. We continue to support this important health care ministry with cash from our other hospitals. While that is an acceptable short-term tactic, in the long-term it is in our view that the solution for Caritas Carney must be shared responsibility.”

However, corporate members are optimistic about the system’s coming years, saying “We are positioned for growth and prosperity and have great optimism for our future.”

Caritas Christi Health Care, established in 1985, is the second largest health care system in New England. The vision for Caritas is to become an “exceptional, integrated delivery system” through strategic planning, Chessare said.

The system is executing its strategic business plans for each of its six hospitals in Brighton, Brockton, Dorchester, Fall River, Methuen, and Norwood.

In all of its hospitals, Caritas has sought to improve patient and physician satisfaction as well as eliminate inefficiencies. The system is already a low-cost provider with short waits for care. Patient satisfaction scores are the highest they have ever been. Employee satisfaction scores have increased the past two years after Caritas took a survey and implemented changes to meet their needs, he said.

Caritas has also held two-day leader development institutes for managers to learn new techniques and ways to improve service. The most recent session, held Nov. 5-6, was attended by 600 managers from across the system, he said.

Reacting to the media reports, several groups of politicians have met in recent weeks to discuss Carney’s future. One recent meeting, held on Oct. 26, included U.S. Reps. Michael Capuano and Stephen Lynch, state Sen. Jack Hart, state Reps. Linda Dorcena Forry and Martin Walsh and Boston City Council President Maureen Feeney.

In a joint statement, the political leaders said their goal is to ensure that Carney Hospital remains a vibrant part of the Dorchester community.

Feeney, whose husband Larry Feeney is president of the Caritas Carney Foundation, also met with Senate President Therese Murray on Oct. 25. Boston Mayor Menino told media outlets that he is consulting with health care specialists about Carney.

Attorney General Martha Coakley, whose office is responsible for the oversight of nonprofit hospitals through its Public Charities Division, is planning a thorough review of Caritas by Philadelphia firm Health Care Strategies & Solutions Inc.

In a Nov. 2 statement, Coakley said Caritas Carney faces “significant challenges” that are not unique to Caritas Christi.

The Archdiocese of Boston, which owns Caritas Christi, authorized a strategic review of the system in December 2006. The outlined goals are 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. Efforts to do so were unsuccessful. Now the corporate members will implement governance changes based on recommendations from the Governance Review Committee.

The archdiocese has also formed a search committee for a permanent system president. Chessare, president of Caritas Norwood Hospital and senior vice president for quality and patient safety of Caritas Christi, has served as interim president since May 25.

Chessare said that the attorney general’s consultant group, Health Care Strategies & Solutions, has already been meeting with Carney officials at three-month intervals. Those reviews occurred because the hospital is a necessary public charity facing challenges.

“We have been meeting with them at regular intervals for years and they have been saying ‘good work’ for years,” he said. “We welcome the [more thorough] review because it will show that we are doing a good job but that this market is really hard and the playing field is not level.”

The Massachusetts health care market is particularly tough because insurers and the state pay 30 percent more to larger Boston teaching hospitals for the same quality work, he said.

Chessare added that Caritas is on par or better than other hospital systems in the Commonwealth and invited everyone to evaluate for themselves by visiting the federal government’s Hospital Compare Web site at