C.E.O. Denies Reform Forces Hospital Sale

Kevin Cook’s off-the-cuff comments in a televised interview inadvertently launched a national controversy over the near-term impact of pending health care reform measures. Now Mr. Cook, head of a Scranton, Pa., Catholic health system, has denied widespread media reports that the decision to put three hospitals in northeastern Pennsylvania up for sale was a consequence of the health care reform bill passed in March.

“Discussions about mergers, acquisitions and strategic partnerships have been conducted in our health care community for years—long before the passage of the [Patient Protection and] Affordable Care Act,” said Mr. Cook, president and chief executive officer of Mercy Health Partners, in a statement on Oct. 10. “Our decision announced last week was due to many factors.” Cook added, “The rationale for our initiative has been mischaracterized by certain politicized media outlets and severely distorted by some special-interest groups.”

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Mercy Health Partners is made up of Mercy Hospital in Scranton, Mercy Special Care Hospital in Nanticoke, Mercy Tyler Hospital in Tunkhannock and several outpatient facilities. It is part of Catholic Healthcare Partners, based in Cincinnati. Reports that health reform had forced the closing of a Catholic hospital surfaced after Cook told a Scranton television news reporter on Oct. 6 that health reform “is absolutely playing a role” in the decision to explore the sale of one or all of the hospitals. “Was it the precipitating factor in this decision? No, but was it a factor in our planning over the next five years? Absolutely,” Cook said. He said health reform changes could mean lower federal reimbursements for the Scranton-area hospitals, which already suffered from underutilization. Scranton’s population has endured a relentless decline for decades.

Claiming that “three Scranton-area Catholic hospitals are shutting down because of ‘Obamacare’ regulations,” the Web site CatholicVote.org said it had developed a radio ad calling on Pennsylvania voters to reject the re-election bids of the Democratic representatives Paul Kanjorski and Chris Carney, who voted in favor of the final health reform package. A blogger on that site, Thomas Peters, also criticized Carol Keehan [pictured], a member of the Daughters of Charity who is president and chief executive officer of the Catholic Health Association, reporting an accusation first made at conservative media outlets that she had bullied Cook into retracting his statement.

In a statement on Oct. 8, Sister Keehan addressed “alarmist” media reports. She said Mercy leaders had “determined that their own resources were insufficient to meet the needs of the community going forward” and that “reports that health reform is the primary motive behind the sale are completely false, misleading and politically motivated.” Sister Keehan said it was “also important to note that health reform does not in any way imperil the ability of Catholic hospitals to operate as they always have—in accordance with their values and in full compliance with the religious and ethical directives of Catholic health care.”

Sister Keehan denied pressuring or even speaking with Cook and added that she did not know him personally. A C.H.A. spokesperson, Fred Caesar, said that Sister Keehan had, in fact, not spoken with any members of the Sisters of Mercy or board members at Mercy Health Partners about the furor generated by Cook’s interview. He said that “normal contact” took place between “lower levels” at the C.H.A. and Mercy Health Partners. Regarding the content and timing of press releases refuting media reports, Caesar said, “You stand by your members. We followed their lead and supported our member.”

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