Conflicting statements have led to a growing controversy about whether the nation’s sixth largest Catholic healthcare system in the U.S. will begin offering benefits to employees in same-sex marriages this spring.
Last week, Missouri’s Springfield News-Leader reported that Mercy Health System, which has 40,000 workers across seven states, would begin offering benefits to employees in same-sex marriages to comply with shifting employment and healthcare regulations. The newspaper quotes Mercy spokesperson Sonya Kullmann:
” ‘As a Catholic health ministry, Mercy has followed the Church’s position on this issue in the past…However, in line with recent changes in government regulations, we will extend benefits to all legally married spouses effective this spring.’ “
However, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch later cited a Mercy statement which says the system is only “exploring how best to expand health care benefits for our co-workers, their dependents and loved ones…to help address their varied family situations…” According to an update from the Springfield News-Leader, Mercy is not responding to inquiries about the differing statements.
However, this discrepancy has not stopped Catholic officials from condemning even the possibility that LGBT employees be granted equal benefits. Bishop James Johnston of Springfield-Cape Girardeau condemned the healthcare organization’s action, stating: “no believing Christian worthy of the name should violate God’s law because of ‘regulations.'” Crux reported that the bishop continued:
“Our ancestors refused to abandon the faith even when subjected to the cruelty and torture of the Roman Empire, but in our age unspecified ‘regulations,’ government funds, and fear of public ridicule is sufficient in order to secure the compliance of some,”
According to The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Archdiocese of St. Louis weighed in on Mercy’s potential move by criticizing the federal government for putting Catholic businesses in a tough spot.
“ ‘It is simply inconsistent to claim to be a Catholic institution while publicly acting against Church teaching…Today, however, Catholic institutions face sanctions from the American government for fidelity to their Catholic identity.’
“The statement added that failure to comply with federal regulations would result ‘in crippling penalties that would gravely impact Mercy’s employees and patient care.’ “
Bishop Johnston and the Archdiocese of St. Louis do not yet understand how valuing and protecting LGBT employees benefits the common good. Was it their harsh rhetoric that caused Mercy administrators to pause on their decision to extend benefits?
The Springfield News-Leader pointed out that local competitor CoxHealth, a secular healthcare provider, began offering such benefits last fall as a means of “attracting and retaining the best talent.” Mercy would not be the first church-affiliated system to offer equal benefits. For instance, Catholic Health Initiatives began offering such benefits earlier this month to employees in the 19 states in which it operates, saying in a statement:
” ‘CHI believes that health care is part of the common good and is considered a basic human right…And so it was important to make health benefits accessible to employees, their dependents and loved ones within the employee’s family where possible. The goal of expanding coverage overall will continue to align more closely with the desired culture of supporting diversity and families. This change also serves the purpose of eliminating any perceived inequity of benefits by some employees and will help CHI to attract and retain talented employees, regardless of their sexual orientation or personal situation.’ “
The same article also offers other examples of Catholic institutions finding alternative ways to provide benefits to same-sex couples:
“St. Louis-based SSM Health — which has facilities in Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Illinois and Missouri — opened employee health plans to ‘legally domiciled adults’ in 2003, according to spokesman Steve Van Dinter.
” ‘Through this innovative and compassionate program, we have been able to extend health care coverage to hundreds of adult spouses, parents, children, and friends who reside with an employee and are not otherwise insured,’ Van Dinter said in an email.
“To qualify as a legally domiciled adult under the plan, the individual must reside in the same home with the employee, be a member of the employee’s household and be 19 years old or older. The first page of a Google search for “legally domiciled adult” is predominantly Catholic institutions explaining their benefit policies, including Loyola University Maryland, Georgetown University, Denver-based SCL Health and the University of San Francisco.”
” ‘As a Catholic health ministry founded by the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, SSM Health believes that access to health care coverage is a basic good,’ Van Dinter said.”
Additionally, according to a National Catholic Reporter article from October 2014, 22 Jesuit colleges and universities in the U.S. offer benefits to employees’ same-sex partners, as will the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana.
Mercy administrators should make the just choice for their workers and patients by extending benefits to same-sex couples, a choice which both upholds Catholic identity and adheres to government regulations. In the American system where benefits, especially health insurance, are tied to employment, ensuring employees and their families are adequately cared for is an act of justice. Indeed, Pope John XXIII was one of the first voices to declare healthcare a human right in his 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris. Expanding access to quality care for all, especially marginalized groups like LGBT people, is the action of a “believing Christian worthy of the name.”
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry