Despite objections to specific components of the Senate health care reform proposal, especially regarding the potential use of federal money to fund abortions, U.S. Catholic bishops made it clear last week that they still supported health care reform in the United States. The congressional effort toward reform seemed to falter badly because of the unexpected ascendancy of Scott Brown of Massachusetts. Brown, a pro-choice Republican, won the Senate seat once held by the late Ted Kennedy and has already indicated that he would add the 41st “no” on health care, enough to stall the effort indefinitely under current Senate rules.
In a letter dated Jan. 26, three leading U.S. bishops called on members of Congress to "set aside partisan divisions and special-interest pressures" to achieve genuine health reform. "The health care debate, with all its political and ideological conflict, seems to have lost its central moral focus and policy priority, which is to ensure that affordable, quality, life-giving care is available to all," said a letter signed by Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston and Bishops William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., and John C. Wester of Salt Lake City. The three chair the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' committees on Pro-Life Activities, on Domestic Justice and Human Development and on Migration, respectively. Although the letter did not refer specifically to Brown’s election on Jan. 19, the bishops said, "Although political conte xts have changed, the moral and policy failure that leaves tens of millions of our sisters and brothers without access to health care still remains."
At a meeting with the press on Jan. 23, Cardinal DiNardo said that with the fate of the current health reform bills in doubt, the next challenge will be to convince members of Congress not to abandon the health reform effort entirely. The cardinal said he was speaking both as chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities and as head of an archdiocese that has "the highest number of uninsured in the country."
"We need health reform," he said in a briefing with Catholic media at the headquarters of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington. "We're concerned that there may not be" continued momentum in Congress "to allow more people to be insured," he added. Cardinal DiNardo was speaking shortly before the March for Life marking the 37th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. The day before, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said there were not enough votes in the House to pass the Senate-approved version of health reform legislation. Cardinal DiNardo noted that the bishops had never endorsed a particular health reform bill but have instead "cited our preoccupations" with existing legislation—a role he said they would continue to play as the debate moves forward.
In the two-and-a-half-page letter, the USCCB leaders outlined their "fundamental principles" for health care reform, saying it must:
- Protect human life and dignity, not threaten them.
- Respect the consciences of providers, taxpayers and others, not violate them.
- Be truly universal and ... not be denied to those in need because of their condition, age, where they come from or when they arrive here.
- Restrain costs and apply them "equitably across the spectrum of payers."
The USCCB leaders repeated their criticism of health reform bills passed by the Senate and the House of Representatives. Both bills, they said, "leave between 18 and 23 million people in our nation without health insurance.
"Although recently passed legislation in the House and Senate may not move forward in either of their current forms, there are provisions in the bills that should be included in—and some that should be removed from—any proposals for health care reform," they added. The bishops called for extending Medicaid eligibility to people at 133 percent of the federal poverty level (about $29,300 for a family of four, under 2009 guidelines that have been extended at least until March 1) and said "the best affordability elements" of each bill should be included in any final legislation. They faulted both bills for failing to protect the conscience rights of health care providers, insurers, consumers and institutions beyond the abortion issue and said the Senate bill "violates the long-standing federal policy against the use of federal funds for elective abortions and health plans that include such abortions."
"We believe legislation that fails to comply with this policy and precedent is not true health care reform and should be opposed until this fundamental problem is remedied," the bishops said. The letter also reiterated the bishops' support for allowing undocumented immigrants to purchase health insurance through the proposed health exchanges with their own money. The Senate bill prohibits such purchases. "To proactively prohibit a human being from accessing health care is mean-spirited and contrary to the general public health," the USCCB leaders said.
They also called for removal of the five-year ban on legal immigrants accessing federal health plans such as Medicaid, saying that those who "pay taxes and are on a path to citizenship should be able to access programs for which their taxes help pay."
In his State of the Union address on Jan. 27, President Barack Obama urged Congress to step up its efforts to achieve health reform this year. "Do not walk away from reform. Not now. Not when we are so close," Obama said. "Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people."
Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity who is president and CEO of the Catho lic Health Association, affirmed that message in a Jan. 28 letter to members of Congress. "We understand the political realities and concerns with passage of such important and far-reaching legislation," she wrote. "But we firmly believe that now is not the time to let those concerns derail what may be the last opportunity of our lifetime to address the continuing shame of allowing so many individuals and families in our nation to go without access to affordable health care."