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Pound foolish

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You didn't need to be a psychic to anticipate that a consultant hired by two institutions that want to merge would conclude that merger is highly desirable. It would have been a great surprise had the consultant reported back to his patrons "Hey guys, this is a terrible idea. Forget about it and move on. You really should have been able to figure this one out by yourself. Maybe we'll return some of those consultant fees. Maybe not."

Everyone should be suspicious of the consultant's finding that a merger of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, a public institution, and St. Vincent Health System, a Roman Catholic institution, would save the combined institutions $38 million to $63 million annually. St. Vincent and UAMS commissioned the study to get results like this.

But even if the alleged saving was found to be authentic, it would still be irrelevant. This proposed merger is not about dollars and cents. It's about freedom, and you can't put a price tag on that, not in this country. The USA was founded on the principle of religious freedom, on separation of church and state. Public tax dollars may not, must not, be used to support sectarian institutions — hospitals, schools, monasteries, what have you. Religious dogma must not be allowed to dictate public policy, to impose birth-control restrictions in public hospitals, to influence instruction at public teaching hospitals.

One of the Catholic church's oldest arguments for getting public money for parochial schools is that if the parochial schools closed, the public schools would have to educate those children using public money only; that the parochial schools are in fact saving money for the taxpayers. Again, the argument is irrelevant, as is the argument that some or all of the parochial schools provide education that is as good as or better than that at some or all of the public schools. The founders of the republic believed, and rightly, that no citizen should be forced to support a religion that was not his own. They were willing to pay to prevent it. So should we be.

A combined UAMS-St. Vincent could not operate without violating the boundaries between church and state. Even proponents admit the merger could not take place without the approval of church authorities. What would be the quid pro quo? We doubt the Pope would submit to examination by the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee.

The old saying about a cynic is that he knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. The proposed UAMS-St. Vincent merger is a highly cynical venture. If merger of two hospitals at Little Rock is needed for cost efficiency, let St. Vincent and Baptist Health get together. The community needs one hospital that provides non-sectarian medical treatment, where priests and preachers do not make the rules.

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