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As the Senate prepares to debate the health care reform bill proposed by its Finance Committee, representatives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops expressed concern about the plan’s affordability and its failure to address questions about abortion coverage, conscience rights and the health of immigrants.

The Finance Committee completed its markup of a plan proposed by Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana, on Oct. 2 and was expected to vote on the plan the following week. The committee rejected amendments that would have written into the bill the federal government’s longstanding policy not to fund benefits packages that cover abortions, with rare exceptions. The amendments would have also forbidden government agencies’ receiving federal funds under the bill to discriminate against health care providers that decline to perform, refer for or pay for abortions.

“The bill remains deeply flawed on these issues and must be corrected,” said Richard Doerflinger of the U.S.C.C.B. Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities.

On the inclusion of immigrants, the committee defeated amendments opposed by the U.S.C.C.B. that would have placed additional restrictions on legal immigrants seeking health care. But a representative of the bishops’ conference said that the proposed bill still did not do enough to improve accessibility. “Legal immigrants, who work hard and pay taxes, should be treated equally with U.S. citizens,” said Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy for the U.S.C.C.B. “It is counterproductive to the general public health to leave them outside of the system, unable to access preventive treatment and dependent on emergency care.”

Kathy Saile, director of domestic social development for the U.S.C.C.B., said the bill took some steps toward improved affordability, but leaves “many families still vulnerable to high health care costs.” Saile urged Congress to find further ways to reduce the cost of health care, suggesting, for example, the “expansion of access to programs such as Medicaid.”

In a Sept. 30 letter, bishops representing three U.S.C.C.B. committees called on senators to insist that any final health reform bill exclude mandated coverage of abortion, protect conscience rights and safeguard the health of immigrants. They also said affordability should be a major consideration. The letter was signed by Bishop William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia and Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City.

The bishops’ letter suggested several ways to improve health care for immigrants:

• Elimination of the five-year waiting period before legal immigrants can enroll in Medicaid;

• An end to barriers, such as waiting periods to obtain subsidies, when immigrants seek to obtain private health insurance;

• Health coverage of women giving birth to U.S.-citizen children, irrespective of the women’s legal status.

The bishops wrote that health coverage should not be dependent on an individual’s “stage of life, where or whether they or their parents work, how much they earn, where they live or where they were born.” For lower-income families, the bishops said, “significant premiums and cost-sharing charges can serve as barriers to obtaining coverage or seeing a doctor.”

The full Senate is expected to begin deliberations on the Finance Committee bill this month.

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