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
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
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