Supreme Court takes up hospi­tal pen­sion dis­pute

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

The Supreme Court will de­cide whether some of the na­tion’s largest health providers can rely on their church af­fil­i­a­tions to avoid com­ply­ing with fed­eral laws cov­er­ing pen­sion ben­e­fits for work­ers.

The jus­tices agreed Fri­day to take up cases in­volv­ing three non­profit hospi­tal sys­tems be­ing sued for un­der­fund­ing their em­ployee pen­sion plans. Lower courts ruled against the hos­pi­tals Dig­nity Health, Ad­vo­cate Health Care Net­work and Saint Peter’s Health­care Sys­tem √¢¬Ä¬î say­ing their pen­sions do not qual­ify as “church plans” ex­empt from the law. That could force them and other hos­pi­tals to spend bil­lions to make up fund­ing short­falls.

The hos­pi­tals ar­gue that sev­eral fed­eral agen­cies for years have as­sured them that they are in fact ex­empt. Work­ers have filed dozens of sim­i­lar law­suits over pen­sion man­age­ment across the coun­try against hos­pi­tals af­fil­i­ated with re­li­gious groups. The law­suits ar­gue that the hos­pi­tals are shirk­ing le­gal safe­guards that could mean losses of re­tire­ment ben­e­fits for tens of thou­sands of work­ers.

Pen­sion plans must be fully funded and in­sured un­der fed­eral law, but Congress carved out nar­row ex­emp­tions for churches and other re­li­gious or­ga­ni­za­tions. In the three cases taken up Tues­day, ap­peals courts in San Francisco, Chicago and Philadel­phia have all ruled that the ex­emp­tion ap­plies only to plans that were es­tab­lished by a church.

The hos­pi­tals claim the law also ex­empts plans as­so­ci­ated with or con­trolled by a church, whether or not a church it­self cre­ated the plan. The Supreme Court in Septem­ber tem­po­rar­ily blocked the rul­ing against Dig­nity Health from tak­ing ef­fect while jus­tices de­cided whether to re­view the case. Work­ers su­ing the hospi­tal say the pen­sion plan is un­der­funded by $1.2 bil­lion.

Dig­nity Health is the fifth-largest provider of health care in the coun­try, em­ploy­ing more than 60,000 peo­ple. It formed from the merger of two Catholic hospi­tal sys­tems in Cal­i­for­nia in 1986. Ad­vo­cate Health Care Net­work is af­fil­i­ated with the Evan­gel­i­cal Lutheran Church in Amer­ica and the United Church of Christ. It em­ploys about 30,000 peo­ple at twelve hos­pi­tals and more than 250 in­pa­tient and out­pa­tient health care sites in Illi­nois.

Saint Peter’s is owned by the Ro­man Catholic Dio­cese of Me­tuchen, New Jer­sey, and runs a hospi­tal and other health care fa­cil­i­ties em­ploy­ing more than 2,800 peo­ple. The cases are Ad­vo­cate Health Care v. Sta­ple­ton, 16-74, Saint Peter’s Health­care v. Ka­plan, 16-86 and Dig­nity Health v. Rollins, 16-258. They will be ar­gued in the spring.

This story has been cor­rected to note that the full Supreme Court, not only Jus­tice An­thony Kennedy, tem­po­rar­ily blocked the Dig­nity Health rul­ing.

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