KANSAS CITY — More than a century ago two orders of nuns founded two hospitals- the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet opened St. Joseph Hospital in 1874, and the Sisters of St. Mary opened St. Mary’s Hospital in 1909. Both were in downtown Kansas City.
St. Joseph’s and St. Mary’s hospitals served all who sought care, regardless of religious affiliation, race or financial situation, charity work being a charism of both religious orders.
St. Joseph’s has been located at 1-435 and State Line Road since 1977. St. Mary’s continued to operate downtown; in 1981, a satellite facility was opened in Blue Springs. The Sisters of St. Mary merged with the Sisters of St. Francis of Maryville in 1985, becoming the Franciscan Sisters of Mary and, as such, operated the hospital’s two locations. The Kansas City facility closed in 1987; today St. Mary’s Medical Center calls Blue Springs home.
In 1997, St. Joseph’s Health System and St. Mary’s Hospital of Blue Springs merged to become Carondelet Health System. In 2002, Carondelet Health System became a member of Ascension Health.
Several years ago Ascension Health put the two multiple award-winning, acute-care hospitals on the market, approaching several for-profit health systems. In February 2015, Prime Healthcare Services, based in California, completed its acquisition of St. Joseph’s and St. Mary’s Medical Centers. In the ensuing six months, new Chief Executive Officers were named, staff members became acquainted with new colleagues, and questions arose, mainly, “Are the hospitals still Catholic?”
Bob Erickson, CEO of St. Joseph Medical Center; Deb Ohnoutka, MHA, BSN, CEO of St. Mary’s Medical Center, Father Ernie Davis, Director of Mission Integration at both hospitals and Father Charles Rowe, Vicar General of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, which sponsors the hospitals, all said “Yes!”
Father Rowe said that when a tentative purchase offer was made by Hospital Corporation of America, then-Bishop of Kansas City – St. Joseph Robert Finn called together a group of local priests, attorneys and businessmen to discuss the benefits of the sale and begin formatting a covenant agreement to ensure the preservation of the hospitals’ Catholic spirit. HCA’s proposed purchase was subsequently blocked by the Federal Trade Commission, enabling Prime Healthcare to pursue acquisition.
Father Rowe said the covenant agreement, a formal agreement between the parties to do or not do specific things and to act in harmony with the precepts of the Catholic Church, was important to both the Diocese and to Prime Healthcare. The Ethical and Religious Directives (ERDs), compiled and promulgated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and last revised in 2009, form the basis of the Covenant Agreement.
“Prime saw value in preserving the Catholic spirit in healthcare,” Father Rowe said. “Certain conditions of the covenant were agreed upon by both the Diocese and by Prime, including instituting the diocesan Office of Catholic Healthcare to interface with the hospitals and other providers and funded by Prime Healthcare; education for employees in Catholic values and teaching; hiring a Director of Mission Integration to serve both hospitals and installing Managers of Spiritual Care at both hospitals.”
The Diocese will nominate two voting members to sit on the Board of Trustees, and appoint one person to the Ethics Committee.
Prime Healthcare has also signed and agreed to abide by the Ethical and Religious Directives.
Father Davis praised the covenant agreement, calling it a “really good agreement;” requiring all employees and members of the hospitals’ boards be educated in and adhere to the ERDs.
As Director of Mission Integration, he will interface with the hospitals’ administration, staff and patients to keep Catholicity integrated with social services, for example: hosting a school supply drive at the hospitals to benefit Seton Center. Admitting staff will ask for faith affiliations at the time of admission, so that sacramental care can be provided for Catholic patients. Father Davis, chaplains and parish volunteers will also visit patients. “This office will open new doors and relationships,” he said.
He plans to schedule meetings with local pastors, making parishes aware of what’s going on in both hospitals; work with pastoral care departments in the hospitals to ensure there are Catholic chaplains, and interface with Catholic Charities, Seton Center and similar institutions. Father Davis said, “We’re here for life, from beginning to the end, and that means fulfilling our Catholic mission of offering health and spiritual care, not allowing abortions or euthanasia. We are Catholic in action, not just in name. If we are fulfilling our mission, we will remain financially stable, which will please Prime Healthcare.”
Deb Ohnoutka, says her job at St. Mary’s Medical Center is “about the people. Taking care of people, walking with them like Jesus did, that’s my leadership style. I have to lead a whole lot of people (doctors, nurses, administrative and other staff, and patients), ethically and with kindness. Patients demand that hospitals get me well, keep me safe and treat me with kindness.”’
Ohnoutka is not Catholic, but her Christian faith is important in her life, and carries through into her work. She sees St. Mary’s Medical Center as a community hospital — “we’re taking care of our family, and doing what we do well. Everything I do is about making sure St. Mary’s is here, in the community. Father Ernie is setting up luncheons with the local Deaneries to integrate this hospital with the parishes. This is a Catholic hospital! All of us here — doctors, nurses and staff, patients and visitors — feel comforted to have Father Ernie walking the halls, the chaplains visiting patients, the chapel and the crucifixes on the walls. It adds up to God is in control.”
Using the resources of Prime Healthcare, Ohnoutka envisions keeping St. Mary’s Medical Center important to the people of Blue Springs and surrounding communities through innovation and technology developments. She is interested in opening an on-campus natural family planning clinic and, eventually, an outpatient cancer center and hospice, and a larger intensive care unit. She expects the medical center’s awards to continue and with advancements in medical technology, to recruit more physicians, nurses and new patients.
Bob Erickson, St. Joseph’s Medical Center’s new CEO, sees Prime Healthcare as a supportive investor. Dr. Prem Reddy, President and CEO of Prime Healthcare, “has a passion for healthcare,” Erickson said. In the company’s Corporate Brand Handbook, Dr. Reddy writes, “We believe in community and that all healthcare is local. Our family of hospitals is brought together by the strength of our support but continue to be unique serving the needs of each of their distinct communities.” The corporate business model is “saving hospitals, jobs and lives,” each related to the others. Without hospitals, there would be fewer doctors and nurses and lives would be lost, Erickson said.
Prime’s inclusive charitable care guidelines “allow us to deliver more care to more people,” he added.
Decisions in health care need to be made closer to where they impact, Erickson said. Prime Healthcare sees its corporate office as a support center, while hospitals are empowered to make decisions to better their healthcare for the patients. “Empowerment brings accountability,” he said, “and I don’t feel that we’re compromising the legacy of the Sisters of St. Joseph, our founders, or our heritage of Catholic healthcare. Subsidiarity is important. Back in 1874 the Sisters saw a need and did something about it.
“We want our people to feel empowered to do what needs to be done, especially with healthcare changing by the second.”
“We have here an interesting paradigm,” Erickson, a Catholic, said, “maintaining our hospitals’ Catholicity now that we’re owned by a successful, for-profit company. The Diocese actually sponsors the hospitals’ Catholicity. The fact that Prime signed the ERDs to support the Catholic identity of this hospital and of St. Mary’s, shows that we’re working together. As far as our Catholic identity is concerned, nothing has changed. The ERDs are very positive, not a list of don’ts. They are proactive, a celebration of life – whole person care, dignity, respect – and easy to abide by.”
Erickson sees himself as a culture builder. He views the past 130 years since St. Joseph’s was founded with an eye toward healthcare’s future. “I want to keep the Catholic mission and spirit moving forward and we can do that by adhering to the values of the Catholic faith.”
He feels that he stands on the shoulders of giants — any challenges being faced today are nothing compared to the challenges faced by the Sisters of St. Joseph more than a century ago. “Frankly, I don’t want to lose that. There’s a lot of work to do,” he said.
Prime Healthcare owns 34 hospitals in 11 states, including Providence Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan., and St. John’s Hospital in Leavenworth, Kan. Both were founded by the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth and, under Prime Healthcare, maintain their Catholic identity.