Kentucky voices: Lexington, Catholics losing too much in merger of hospitals

Dr. Michael Sekela adjusted the arms of the DaVinci machine, a computer-aided device used for less invasive heart surgery at St. Joseph Hospital.
Dr. Michael Sekela adjusted the arms of the DaVinci machine, a computer-aided device used for less invasive heart surgery at St. Joseph Hospital.

In the 1970s, a local "Stop the Dam" effort grew to national attention. In the end, the inspiring beauty of the Red River Gorge was saved for future generations.

Today, the proposed merger of St. Joseph Hospital (as a member of St. Joseph Health System) with the University of Louisville Hospital and Jewish Hospital is another eminent threat.

The deal is troubling in at least three areas: threat to prominence and local control, lack of transparency and a threat to core values and Catholic identity.

On threat to prominence and local control: St. Joseph's, as Lexington's first hospital is affectionately known, was founded in 1877 by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.

It has long enjoyed a tradition of excellence and area medical firsts: first nursing school (1918), first medical library (1932), first blood bank (1939), and first open-heart surgery (1959). Its CT scanner (1974) was the state's first and nation's sixth. Truly amazing firsts continue, including robotic closed-chest heart surgery (2010).

Befitting this tradition of excellence, it is still the "mothership" of the St. Joseph chain. Sadly, and incredibly, the merger will dissolve its board forever, as well as the boards of the eight sister facilities (St. Joseph East, Women's Hospital, Jessamine, Berea, Martin, Mount Sterling, London and Flaget).

The entire system will have only a minority representation on the merged Louisville board, despite the contribution of $300 million by its parent chain to the deal.

This local jewel, St. Joseph's, if it maintains its honored name, will become a secondary medical outpost of a Louisville-governed and Denver-owned conglomerate.

On the lack of transparency: Last November, the news release on the merger stated that national bioethicist John Haas had approved it. Yet during a call to Haas, his spokesman would neither "confirm nor deny" that a consult was rendered.

At an off-site February meeting at Keeneland — to which not even the president of the St. Joseph's medical staff was invited — a U of Lmedical school official affirmed there would be no backing down on obstetric training mandates, including for abortion and sterilization.

On the threat to core values and Catholic identity: A few years ago, the six-foot-long marble crosses that stretched from the front to the back of St. Joe's were jackhammered up. Likewise, when nursing floor units were remodeled, Christian symbols that were left by the Sisters were removed.

This past Christmas, the manger scene was smaller and off to the side. Despite new, red and prominent signage that includes the parking lot, the cross next to the sign above the main entrance was removed and not replaced.

The U of L Web site proudly markets sterilization and in vitro fertilization, which includes abortion by "selection" and "reduction" of embryos. Abortions are performed at clinics in Louisville and Lexington. The Web site reassuringly states the clinics are staffed by "faculty of the University of Louisville School of Medicine."

To avoid confusion, scandal and the suggestion of support for their actions, since June 2004 the American Bishops have forbidden Catholic universities from honoring pro-abortion speakers at commencements.

A merger between U of L and St. Joseph's is a clash of cultures. How is this merger with its eye-popping dowry not support for U of L's actions?

In contrast to this non-collaborative, Denver-down deal, the Catholic Catechism teaching on subsidiarity affirms that a "higher order should not interfere within the internal life of a community of a lower order."

Don't Lexington, and the other affected local communities, have any say about this?

U of L should consider three proposals for St. Joseph's, prayerfully offered:

■ Retention of the hospital's executive team.

■ Retention of a local governing board.

■ The overdue naming of Bishop Ronald Gainer, head of the Lexington diocese, to this board.