For sister, faith and health care go together

Friday, February 01, 2019 - Updated: 2:56 pm

By Carol Zimmermann Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — Sister Carol Keehan, a nurse before she became a woman religious, used to think she would spend most of her days — up to retirement — working in an emergency room.

For the Daughter of Charity, who has been at the helm of the Catholic Health Association for the past 14 years and is about to retire this summer, that deep understanding and appreciation of the urgent demands and needs of a hospital emergency room have never left her.

Sister Carol not only had on-the-ground experience as a hospital nurse, but she quickly moved up to be supervisor of a children’s hospital in Florida, vice president for nursing at two hospitals and then president and CEO at these hospitals before her current role: president and CEO of the organization of more than 2,200 Catholic hospitals, nursing homes, long-term care facilities, systems, sponsors and related organizations in the United States.

The 75-year-old who wears a Fitbit and a lapel pin of her order — known for its ministry to the sick and poor — is dogged in her belief that everyone should have proper health care, not just those who can afford it, and that no one should have to choose between health care, food or rent and forgo necessary treatment just because they don’t have health insurance.

That’s why she worked hard behind the scenes to help craft the language of the Affordable Care Act passed by President Barack Obama in 2010, made effective in 2014, and then promised to be repealed and replaced by President Donald Trump once he took office two years later.

One of the pens Obama used to sign that legislation and photos from that day are in a frame hanging just outside her office door.

At a 2015 CHA gathering in Washington, Obama thanked Sister Carol for her steadiness, strength and steadfast voice. “We would not have gotten the Affordable Care Act done had it not been for her,” he added.

Her work has not gone unnoticed by the public at large either. In 2010, she was named one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” and for several years she has been named to Modern Healthcare’s list of “100 Most Influential People in Healthcare,” topping the list at number one in 2007.

Although Trump’s campaign pledge to do away with Obamacare, as many call it, hasn’t happened, parts of the law have been chipped away. In 2017, Congress attempted, but failed, to repeal it. Later that year it eliminated the penalty for those without health insurance and last year, Trump issued new rules making it easier for people to buy cheaper insurance that covers fewer health care services. In last year’s midterm election campaigns, Democrats emphasized keeping the health care law’s protection for people with pre-existing medical conditions.

Currently, according to a Gallup poll published Jan. 23, the percentage of U.S. adults without health insurance has reached a four-year high, 13.7 percent, in the last quarter of 2018 and women and younger adults are the least-insured groups. This number is less than 18 percent, which it was in the first quarter of 2014 before the ACA went into effect.

Sister Carol, who spoke with Catholic News Service from her 10th floor corner office in Washington Jan. 22, said she believes the “best pieces of the ACA will survive” and she also thinks it can still be improved, something she has said from the start.

Sister Carol faced tremendous backlash for her support of the ACA, challenged in the courts by a number of dioceses and religious orders and other religious employers for its mandate that most employer insurance plans include coverage for artificial birth control, sterilization and drugs that induce abortions. The CHA did agree with the bishops that the government needed to expand its definition of religious employers exempt from the mandate.

Years after this, she takes the long view of it, saying that what she endured was nothing compared to what parents go through when they can’t afford to get proper care for their child with cancer, heart disease or diabetes or when they can barely afford annual physicals and immunizations.

Sister Carol also is grateful for Pope Francis, saying he has “done health care such a great service by pointing out the importance of it” and how people who are hurting from physical or mental illnesses need to be made whole again.

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