Hospital has strayed from its mission

July 13, 2013 

Care and hospice takes on new meaning when placed in a larger context that includes not only the current economics of health care but also the history and espoused values of Providence.

The Sisters of Providence have played a significant role in our region’s history. Their founder in the Pacific Northwest, Mother Joseph, is one of two Washington state citizens featured in the National Statuary Hall in the capitol building in Washington, D.C.

Providence Health Care and Services grew directly out of Mother Joseph’s early efforts. It is self-described as “a not-for-profit Catholic health care ministry committed to providing for the needs of the communities it serves — especially for those who are poor and vulnerable.” It is also the largest health care provider in the region with 27 hospitals in five states and more than $239 million in profits last year. Because Providence is the largest private employer in Thurston County, the decisions made by its management have a significant impact on the well-being not only of its workers but of our entire community.

The strike and current dispute between Providence and its workers involves a number of issues but the most significant is Providence’s decision to do away with its comprehensive health care coverage and replace it with what striking workers call a “catastrophic” plan. This new plan has the effect of shifting costs from being shared by Providence and a larger pool of workers directly onto individual employees.

Providence claims that it needs to “change with the times” and that in the brave new world of affordable care, employees need to take on greater individual responsibility for their own care in order to make “material changes to a system that’s too costly to operate and too focused on treating sickness.” That might be true, but in unilaterally making this change, Providence has burdened its lowest-paid workers (average annual wage was $31,000 last year) with a health care plan that might work for someone who is young, single, healthy, and economically independent but is inappropriate for workers who are supporting families and their diverse health care needs. It’s difficult not to conclude that Providence is intent on increasing profits at the expense of workers.

Such a stance significantly contrasts with recent comments by Pope Benedict and Providence’s own statement of mission and values. At a recent Vatican conference on health care and values, the pope emeritus stated that Catholic hospitals “must rethink their particular role in order to avoid having health become a simple “commodity,” subordinate to the laws of the market, and, therefore, a good reserved to a few, rather than a universal good to be guaranteed and defended.”

In light of the the pope’s comments, it’s significant that Providence characterizes its current offer to workers as “competitive” in contrast to its five core values of “respect, compassion, justice, excellence, and stewardship” — values that flow directly out of its identity as a Catholic health care provider and from its founder, Mother Joseph. In charting a path forward, Providence might do well to ask, “What would Mother Joseph do?”

John Rosenberg is pastor of the Lutheran Church of The Good Shepherd. Perspective is coordinated by Interfaith Works in cooperation with The Olympian. The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by Interfaith Works or The Olympian.

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