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News Opinion Editorial

The salvation of St. Joseph

St. Joseph Medical Center officially became part of the University of Maryland Medical System this past weekend, and it's difficult not to see this development as a victory for all involved. The hospital had been rocked by a malpractice scandal — and hundreds of lawsuits — involving unnecessary surgeries conducted by its cardiology department, and the new ownership would seem to give the institution and its employees a fresh start.

For several years, St. Joseph has been operating under a cloud left behind by Dr. Mark Midei and the stent procedures of questionable merit. Many of the resulting legal claims remain unsettled, but they will also continue to be the liability of the previous owner, Catholic Health Initiatives, and not UMMS or the new management team put in place.

Prior to the scandal, St. Joseph was a much-loved community hospital with a broad array of services but also areas of specialty and expertise. Its new leaders are promising to make it so again, and UMMS' track record — and particularly its affiliation with a major medical school — bodes well for the hospital's future.

The University of Maryland Medical System has been on something of a buying spree in recent years as hospitals consolidate to gain efficiency and competitive advantage. To the degree this helps keep prices down for consumers and provides greater expertise and experience to the affiliated hospitals, this also appears to be a good thing.

That UMMS would be interested in St. Joseph is hardly a surprise since Baltimore County was one area where the medical system has not been represented. UMMS is stronger for the acquisition: A desirable physician and patient base is added to the system, and the medical school has yet another institution with which to share its graduates.

Meanwhile, Baltimore County wins for keeping open a hospital (and a major employer) that might have been forced to close at some point. St. Joseph ended its last fiscal year at least $24 million in the red, its annual operating revenue having fallen by one-quarter. The institution has lost talent and patients in recent years, and while its sale attracted several bidders, its continued existence was never guaranteed.

But while the outcome may be the best available, there is at least one element of the arrangement that gives us pause. St. Joseph will continue to operate as a Catholic hospital under all the ethical and religious directives that title suggests. That is a first for UMMS, a private, non-profit, nonsectarian organization since 1984 when it was spun off from state government. But it's not a particularly unusual arrangement for a Catholic hospital to be run by a non-Catholic non-profit.

On the one hand, this is how St. Joseph has always been operated, so it's unlikely to cause much upset or surprise in the community. Those potential patients who might seek care not permitted by the Catholic faith including abortion, fertility treatment, or artificial contraception will have to look elsewhere, but not necessarily far — either to the nearby Greater Baltimore Medical Center or any of the 11 other hospitals in UMMS.

But what about St. Joseph's own employees? The church has strongly opposed a requirement of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul that mandates birth control be covered as a free preventive service by employee health insurance plans at church-affiliated organizations, including hospitals. Might the new governing board of St. Joseph — which is expected to include representatives of the Baltimore Archdiocese — decide to drop insurance coverage entirely for employees in order to follow this church directive?

That would surely be a nightmare for UMMS. After all, as UMMS CEO Robert A. Chrencik has made clear, the organization sees its primary constituency as the state (which created and financed some of the system's most important assets like its world-famous Shock Trauma unit and still has state lawmakers on its board), the medical school and the smaller hospitals in the system. Undermining health care coverage for hundreds of St. Joseph employees would seem wholly counter to its stated mission of providing the "best care in the world to Maryland and the nation."

Nevertheless, this concern should not overshadow the primary impact of the acquisition — a much brighter future for St. Joseph and the community it serves. Mr. Chrencik and the hospital's new leaders, Dr. Mohan Suntha, who is serving as president and CEO, and former state Sen. Francis X. Kelly, who was made chairman of the hospital's board, have promised near-immediate improvements and an end to its economic struggles. Such welcome progress need not be derailed by potential conflicts with the Catholic faith if those leaders do what UMMS has done in the past — hold the public interest above all else.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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