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Health care reform

Archbishop John George Vlazny
Archbishop of Portland in Oregon

Published in the Catholic Sentinel
August 27, 2009

Soon Congress will be returning to Washington. Throughout this month of August for many of them it has not been vacation time as usual. The debate about health care reform in Washington has been brought to cities and towns across the nation. It seemingly has become another divisive issue among our people.

We Catholics celebrated the feast of Mary’s Assumption on Aug. 15. Reverence for the human body is reinforced by our belief that she was bodily assumed into heaven and that our bodies one day also will share eternal glory. While she was here on earth, for many months her body was a sacred residence. It was a temple as she carried in faith the Word made Flesh in her body, in her heart, and also in her mind.
The church reminds us time and time again about the sacredness of our own human flesh, in spite of personal sin. We need to take care of our bodies. They are temples of the Holy Spirit. As people of faith, we Catholics are understandably concerned about all our sisters and brothers who do not have adequate health care when they need it. As a church, we support efforts to provide health care for all people. Bishop William Murphy, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, recently stated, “Genuine health care reform that protects the life and dignity of all is a moral imperative and a vital national obligation.” I share those sentiments and I would say they are the sentiments of all my brother bishops as well.

Once again I am sure there will be some people who believe the church should recuse itself from this debate. I disagree because the Catholic Church is one of the largest health care providers in the United States and also has a credible and respected history when teaching about human rights and civic responsibilities.

Some facts about Catholic health care might be persuasive when questions are raised about the church’s participation in the debate. Our church is one of the largest health care providers in this country. There are 624 Catholic hospitals, 499 Catholic long-term care nursing facilities, 164 home health agencies and 41 hospice organizations under Catholic auspices. Whom do we serve? In one year more than 16.9 million citizens visited Catholic hospital emergency rooms, 92.7 million were out-patients of Catholic hospitals and more than 5 million fellow citizens were admitted into Catholic health care facilities. Those numbers are impressive and clearly justify our expressions of concern.

People across the country are getting involved in sessions about health care reform. I think it is important for you to understand the position your bishops are taking on this matter, a position that I am hopeful you will be able to support in speaking to your representatives in Washington.

First of all, we bishops advocate a truly universal health policy, with respect for human life and dignity. Furthermore there must be access for all with a special concern for the poor and inclusion of illegal immigrants. Furthermore, it is important that the reform pursue the common good and preserve pluralism, including freedom of conscience and a variety of options. Finally, costs need to be restrained and applied equitably across the spectrum of payers.

Some folks wonder why in the world we bishops have entered the fray about health care reform. You need to remember that one out of three Americans under the age of 65 went without health insurance at one time or another during 2007 and 2008. Four out of five were from working families. Sixty-four percent of those who are uninsured are employed full time, year-round. This is unacceptable in our Catholic tradition. For us, health care is a basic human right, not a privilege. It is a fundamental issue of human life and dignity.

What can you do? You can call your members of Congress. The telephone number at the capitol switchboard is 202-224-3121. That number will help you contact your own representative and senators. Remind them of the position of your bishops and encourage them to include health care coverage for all people from conception until natural death while continuing the federal ban on funding for abortions. In his July 17 letter to Congress, Bishop William Murphy wrote, “No health reform plan should compel us or others to pay for the destruction of human life, whether through government funding or mandatory coverage of abortion.”

Interestingly, abortion was not specifically mentioned in draft health care bills until this spring. You may recall that the Medicaid statute does not mention abortion either, but it was funding 300,000 abortions a year in the 1970s until a stop was put to that by the Hyde Amendment. Unfortunately, numerous amendments to keep abortion out of health care reform have been defeated in committee. It seems that some leaders have every intention of undermining health care reform for us by trying to force Americans to accept abortion mandates and/or fund unlimited abortion in health coverage.

What the bishops are looking for is that health care reform be “abortion neutral.” In other words, existing laws and policies with regard to abortion and abortion funding are not presently under debate. We do not want to impede the advancement of health care reform, which can serve truly legitimate goals.

Many lower income families simply lack the funds needed to meet their health care expenses. For these folks significant premiums and cost-sharing charges become barriers to obtaining coverage or seeing a doctor. Medicaid cost-sharing protections need to be maintained and new coverage options should protect the lowest income enrollees from burdens of cost sharing. In Washington the representatives of the bishops have urged Congress to limit premiums or exempt the families earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level for monthly premiums. They have also recommended limiting co-payments and other costs, which could discourage needed care, as well as increasing eligibility levels for the Medicaid and Childrens’ Health Insurance Program.

For Catholics, all of this discussion becomes counterproductive when we focus more on the problems than on the persons involved. For us it is a matter of dealing with the dignity and respect that must rightfully be attributed to all our sisters and brothers. The sacredness of every human person is at stake. When we are more mindful of the dignity of all human life, we will certainly be much better disposed to extend health care, really any care, to all people, and to propose violence, whether it be abortion, euthanasia or war as a solution to nobody.


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