A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Bad Rap? Health Care Law Blamed for Sale of Catholic Hospitals


Republicans are claiming the new health care law is a “main reason” for the sale of three Catholic hospitals in Pennsylvania. And a conservative Catholic group is running a radio ad saying it is "the" reason. But the hospitals’ CEO says his words are being twisted and the new law isn’t the “precipitating factor” behind the sale.

The hospital group says in a news release that "[t]he rationale for our initiative has been mischaracterized by certain politicized media outlets and severely distorted by some special interest groups." Here’s what that refers to:

  • A press release from the Republican staff of the House Ways and Means Committee claims: "Three Catholic hospitals in Pennsylvania have been put up for sale, with ObamaCare cited as a main reason for the decision."
  • And a radio ad from a group called CatholicVote.org says the hospitals "are calling it quits. …The reason? Obamacare." The ad calls for the defeat of Democratic Reps. Paul Kanjorski and Chris Carney — both of whom are Catholic and voted for the health care law.

The origin of these claims is an interview given to a local television station by Kevin Cook, CEO of Mercy Health Partners in Scranton, Pa., regarding the decision to sell three hospitals. Cook told WNEP-TV in an October 6 segment that the three hospitals in the Scranton area were "doing well" and were "ahead of budget for the year." But, he said, "it’s more a decision when we look out over the landscape of health care over the next five years … we understand that a different level of investment may be required than what we can facilitate on our own." The reporter then says that "much of that required investment" was a result of the new health care law. Cook is shown saying: "Health care reform is absolutely playing a role. But was it the precipitating factor in this decision? No. But was it a factor in our planning over the next five years? Absolutely."

Those sound bites quickly evolved as the story was picked up by blogs and the conservative press, and by the GOP, which issued its release two days later, on Oct. 8. That same day, however, the Catholic Health Association issued a statement calling the reports "alarmist" and "false."

CHA President Carol Keehan, Oct. 8: Reports that health reform is the primary motive behind the sale are completely false, misleading and politically motivated. Deliberations to sell the facilities began well before the Affordable Care Act became law and did not hinge on enactment of the legislation.

Here it should be noted that Sister Keehan is a Roman Catholic nun with long experience running Catholic hospitals and with Medicare regulations, but she also advocated strongly for passage of the new health care law. President Obama awarded her one of the 21 pens he used at the signing ceremony. So she’s not a neutral source.

On the same day, however, Cook himself posted a similar disclaimer on the hospitals’ website:

Mercy Health Partners’ CEO Cook, Oct. 8: The rationale for our initiative has been mischaracterized by certain politicized media outlets and severely distorted by some special interest groups.

Discussions about mergers, acquisitions and strategic partnerships have been conducted in our health care community for years–long before the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Our decision announced last week was due to many factors.

None of this stopped CatholicVote.org from airing its radio ad, which it first posted to its YouTube site on Oct. 11. The ad targets Democratic Reps. Kanjorski and Carney, both of whom are in toss-up races, according to the Cook Political Report. The group, a 501(c)(4) advocacy organization, is running the ad primarily on talk radio. It says: "Mercy Hospital CEO Kevin Cook said that President Obama’s health care law is absolutely playing a role in their decision to close their doors. Paul Kanjorski and Chris Carney are both Catholic and each claim to represent us in Washington." The ad says both voted for the health care law and urges voters to "say goodbye to Paul Kanjorski and Chris Carney."

The following day, Mercy’s CEO went back on the air, saying in another TV interview that his words were being twisted. In the follow-up story, a WNEP reporter says that Cook "claims opponents of health care reform are twisting his words out of context" and that "Cook says health care reform is a small factor, but a factor, because its cost and impact is unclear." Cook himself stresses that the hospitals are "not closing," as the radio ad claims. And Cook says it’s "disappointing that a decision that we made that was in the best interest of this community has been politicized in the way it has."

In fact, the hospitals’ original Oct. 6 press release announcing the sale cited long-term issues, and didn’t mention the new law: "For more than two decades area hospitals have endured lower than average reimbursements for care and a static population base. This has, at times, resulted in empty hospital beds and the duplication of services." An editorial in the Scranton Times Tribune echoed that assessment, saying: "Just about everyone in the regional health care industry has known for some time that Scranton no longer can sustain three independent full-service community hospitals. Mercy and Moses Taylor hospitals and Community Medical Center all have considered sales or mergers while vigorously shedding services and staff."

Even in Cook’s initial TV interview, he said the law wasn’t “the precipitating factor.” So how does CatholicVote.org justify its claim that "the" reason to "close" the hospitals is "Obamacare"? We asked the group’s president, Brian Burch. He said that how big a role the law played could be debated, but "the fact of the matter is, it was a factor." He says the ad uses Cook’s exact words, saying the law is "absolutely playing a role." As for the CEO’s subsequent statements, Burch said: "I think he’s trying to backtrack on his statement."

Gladys Bernet, a spokeswoman for Mercy Health Partners, told us that Cook didn’t bring up the health care law as a factor in the original TV interview, but he was responding to the reporter’s question. She says the “mistake” was that his “response was too nuanced.” If you listen to his comments carefully, she says, Cook says that the health care law was a factor in long-term planning. But, “was it the precipitating factor in this particular decision? No.” Says Bernet: “That’s a very nuanced answer.”

Nuance, however, rarely makes it into political messages.

Correction, Oct. 18: We originally wrote that Sister Keehan was present at the White House signing ceremony for the health care law. That’s incorrect. She was traveling and could not attend the ceremony, according to the Catholic Health Association.