Doctor Warns That HHS Mandate Puts Religious Identity at Risk

Head of U.S. Catholic health-care system addresses urgent concerns.

Dr. Anthony Tersigni
Dr. Anthony Tersigni (photo: CNA/Andreas Dueren)

VATICAN CITY — The president of the leading Catholic health-care system in the U.S. said that the requirements of the HHS mandate are a great threat to the company’s ability to continue serving those most in need.

"One of the challenges for us is to make sure we maintain the freedom as a religious organization to continue to respect the dignity of life and take care of young and old throughout the life cycle," Dr. Anthony Tersigni told CNA in a Nov. 25 interview.

Tersigni is the president and chief executive officer of Ascension Health in the United States, as well as the president of the International Committee of Catholic Health Care Institutions at the Vatican.

Ascension Health is a nonprofit Catholic health-care system directed by the Church that seeks to offer care and assistance to those most in need.

During a conference for health-care workers held in Rome Nov. 22-24, Tersigni stated that, "as a Catholic organization, we obviously believe differently than most, in terms of what happens with life," stating that their approach "is to take care of and provide dignity of life from birth through natural death."

"So we differentiate ourselves," he continued, adding that the requirements of the HHS mandate threaten Ascension's status as a religious organization.

The HHS mandate was issued under the Affordable Care Act and requires employers to offer health-insurance plans covering contraception, sterilization and abortion-causing drugs, even if doing so violates the employer's conscience or religious beliefs.

"As an American health-care system," Tersigni explained, "we continue to work very closely with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops" in finding a resolution to the concerns which the mandate poses.

"We really support their lead and their effort in looking at this issue and continue to make our contribution to public policy in the country on behalf of those of us who maintain the need for religious freedom."

Recalling how several others present at the conference have "government-funded programs" which have been in place for many years, the doctor noted that the situation in the U.S. is unique because "we have a private funding program, together with government funding."

"So there are nuances of our system that are much different than any other part of the world," he continued, stating that a great area of collaboration is in "making sure that, as we develop public policy in the United States, we're sensitive to the differences, and we're clearly sensitive to our faith tradition."

Another great challenge for the health-care service, noted the doctor, "is the uninsured," stating that, "even with the Affordable Care Act as is presently in place, there will be millions of people uninsured."

Not only are the uninsured a growing concern, Tersigni expressed, but they are beginning to see also "what we believe is a class of underinsured, and we worry about that."

"We are a safety-net provider in many of the communities that we serve," he explained. "We serve all with special attention to the poor and vulnerable; we don't turn anyone away."

"We worry about the sustainability of this Catholic health ministry over time if we don't create the public policy that's necessary for us to take care of every man, woman and child in a very dignified way."

A key goal of the conference, Tersigni observed, is "to raise health-care quality throughout the world," with a special focus "on the dignity and respect for human life, as well as to provide environments that are safe, high-quality and very low cost."