WASHINGTON, D.C. — In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the nation’s movement for racial reckoning, the Catholic Health Association of the United States announced an initiative to confront racism in the provision of health care.
The initiative was announced in a Feb. 4 news conference on Zoom with Catholic health care leaders.
“With a deep sense of urgency, we feel called to act,” said Mercy Sister Mary Haddad, CHA president and CEO. She said the pandemic’s impact on people of color and the racial justice protests of last year demonstrated “our strides against racism have simply not been enough … more must be done.”
Similarly, Lloyd Dean, president and CEO of CommonSpirit Health, the largest Catholic health system in the U.S., said: “This is our moment” and added that this work Catholic health care groups are taking on “can be a game changer.”
He said the coronavirus pandemic has revealed deep disparities in health care, noting that people of color are four times more likely to be hospitalized and three times more likely to die of COVID-19 than others. “Shame on us if we do not seize this moment as a nation and a society to make measurable and demonstrable changes,” he added.
CHA represents more than 2,200 hospitals, nursing homes and long-term care facilities across the country. Already, 23 Catholic health care systems have signed a pledge stressing their commitment to confront racism in health care provision which includes equity in COVID-19 testing and care; looking closely at hiring, promotion and retention practices; forming stronger partnerships with communities of color; and advocating for policy changes that address racism and social injustice.
By signing the pledge, the health care groups agree to make sure COVID-19 testing is available and accessible in minority communities and that treatments are distributed equitably as they become available. They also indicated they will work to make sure COVID-19 vaccinations are available for individuals and families at higher risk, especially elderly populations and communities of color.
One example of this already underway at CommonSpirit Health — in partnership with the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta — is a 10-year, $100 million initiative to expand opportunities for Black and other underrepresented physicians and to improve COVID-19 testing, care delivery and vaccine allocation directed toward vulnerable populations.
“We believe that everyone has the right to be healthy,” said Dean, noting that “health equity is impacted by factors inside and outside of our facilities — from access to housing, food and transportation to culturally competent clinicians who have common lived experience. It’s time for us to come together to solve these problems proactively and holistically.”
Another part of this pledge is making internal changes. Member organizations will be looking at how they recruit, hire, promote and retain employees; and how they conduct business operations and hold leaders accountable.
“Catholic health care providers have long been a beacon of hope for our communities,” said Ernie Sadau, president and CEO of CHRISTUS Health, a Catholic nonprofit health system with more than 350 services and facilities. With this initiative, he said, Catholic health care providers are leading by example and taking an active role in health equity, which he said starts inside each facility.
Dr. Tamarah Duperval-Brownlee, senior vice president and chief community impact officer at Ascension, a health care system with 67 hospitals in the U.S., did not deny the very real work ahead to end health disparities but she said she was proud of the effort that’s already been done.
And as far as continuing this work, she said there are some obvious and very personal first steps.
“We need to listen better, especially with communities of color,” she said, referring not only to patients but to employees. Building trust within communities takes time, but she said it will happen as “we engage with people where they are.”
The Catholic health care leaders acknowledged in the news conference that what they are taking on will likely lead to broader reforms in housing, food and employment.
They also recognized that other health care groups across the country are similarly trying to take up this necessary challenge.
“The pandemic has taught us, we cannot do it alone,” said Dean, stressing that working together on the local and national level will be “critical to address and build the infrastructure that was lacking.”
“We must find others who share our beliefs,” he said.