Area Catholic hospitals prepare for ramifications of civil unions bill

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, May 22, 2011

As the June 1 date when the Illinois civil union bill will become law approaches Catholic entities are discussing how the law will affect them.

The Illinois Catholic Health Association, which includes Catholic hospitals and other health care institutions, sent a memo to its members on May 9 suggesting that they offer “employee plus one” benefit packages instead of “employee and spouse” benefit packages starting June 1.

Such a package would “provide any employee the opportunity to buy into a benefits package that would provide health coverage for themselves and one other person living with them. This person could be a sibling, relative, etc., the exact relationship would not need to be disclosed,” wrote Patrick Cacchione, the health association’s executive director, in the memo.

Such a policy would mirror one first used in the Archdiocese of San Francisco in the late 1990s when the city passed a law prohibiting contractual relationships with institutions that discriminated against same-sex couples.

The memo is only a recommendation, Cacchione emphasized, and it applies only to health care institutions, not to dioceses, Catholic Charities agencies or educational institutions.

While organizations involved in actual worship and teaching of doctrine, such as dioceses, are recognized as “churches” by the state and accorded more religious freedom, institutions that employ and serve people of all faiths, such as hospitals, generally are not recognized as religious, no matter their ownership or sponsorship, Cacchione said.

However, if they want to maintain their Catholic identity, they cannot fly in the face of Catholic moral teaching, which recognizes marriage being possible only between one man and one woman.

“ICHA recognizes that this is not the optimal response, however, the alternatives of either not offering health benefits to any employee or denying civil union couples benefits could result in costly court cases that we would mostly likely lose. ICHA and the bishops feel that this is the most prudent response while not recognizing civil unions, which the church opposes,” the memo said.

Resurrection Health Care, the largest system in the archdiocese with six hospitals, eight nursing and rehabilitation centers and dozens of other sites, said it will likely follow the recommendation for its fully insured plans.

“We are still exploring our obligations under our self-insured plan, which is a church plan and may be exempt from the law,” said Brian Crawford, vice president of public affairs for Resurrection Health Care.

The issue has not been settled at Loyola University Health System, which is in the midst of a merger with Trinity Health Care, said Anne Dillon, director of media services for the center. Trinity will assume ownership July 1.

At least one Catholic university in the Chicago area, DePaul, already offers a benefit plan open to non-related adults sharing living quarters.

Meanwhile, the six Catholic dioceses in Illinois are working together to create a joint response to the law, said Bob Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois.

A conference call involving five of the six yielded what appears to be a consensus to have their employment policies ensure that people who work for them understand they are working for the church, and are expected to conform to church teaching, he said.