The US Supreme Court will hear appeals in three separate cases relating to Christian-affiliated hospital systems that claim church exemptions from federal retirement and pension laws.
The non-profit hospitals including St. Peter's, Advocate Health Care Network, and Dignity Health are non-profit organizations that are faith-based ministries serving the poor, and have several branches employing thousands of people.
The Employment Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) mandates retirement funds to be managed according to set standards so that employees receive their pensions consistently.
The employees working in these hospitals have accused their health care systems of working like big businesses under the garb of church affiliations so that that they can get away with lax regulations on pension reporting principles, by not being tied up with ERISA.
The hospitals claim that the lawsuits would force certain requirements on them which could endanger their mission to impart care to the poor.
When ERISA was approved in 1980, it had an exemption for churches and church-affiliated organizations, and hundreds of hospital systems around the country had applied for the accommodation.
However, the employees say that the hospitals do not fit under the categories specified in ERISA owing to their multi-denomination affiliations. They also say that these hospitals are basically large corporations only with loose religious ties.
"Congress did not, and had no reason to, allow giant businesses like Advocate to create their own ERISA-exempt benefit plans, simply because they claim a religious affiliation," said the workers.
The employees also alleged that the pension plan in Dignity Health, one of the hospitals sued, is underfunded by $1.2 billion.
The workers want retroactive penalties to account for failure of the hospitals to adhere to ERISA in the past, which could amount to millions or billions of dollars in addition to current liabilities which make the healthcare systems already short of funds.
"These suits seek billions in retroactive liability and a wholesale upheaval in the administration of pension plans affecting religious employers and employees across the country," said the appeals filed by three hospital systems.