By Nancy Frazier O’Brien
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) – None of the major health reform bills before Congress adequately addresses the concerns raised by the U.S. bishops in the areas of abortion, conscience protection, immigrants and affordability, said the heads of three major committees of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Oct. 8.
One of those major bills passed the Senate Finance Committee Oct. 13 in a 14-9 vote. The measure, proposed by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., the committee chairman, must now be combined with a version from the Senate health committee.
Efforts in the last several weeks to amend the Baucus bill to prohibit coverage of abortion funding and include a conscience protection clause for health care workers failed.
In their Oct. 8 letter to all members of Congress, Cardinal Justin Rigali, Bishop William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y. and Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City said: “If final legislation does not meet our principles, we will have no choice but to oppose the bill.”
“Much-needed reform of our health care system must be pursued in ways that serve the life and dignity of all, never in ways that undermine or violate these fundamental values,” they added. “We will work tirelessly to remedy these central problems and help pass real reform that clearly protects the life, dignity and health of all.”
The three chair the USCCB committees on Pro-Life Activities, Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Migration respectively.
The bishops reiterated their earlier calls on Congress to ensure that any health reform plan:
Exclude mandated coverage of abortions and incorporate long-standing federal policies against taxpayer-funded abortions and in favor of conscience rights.
Make quality health care affordable and accessible to everyone.
Include effective measures to safeguard the health of immigrants, their children and all of society, with legal immigrants given “comprehensive, affordable and timely access to health care coverage” and an adequate safety net provided to others.
“We sincerely hope that the legislation will not fall short of our criteria,” the USCCB leaders said.
But they said they “remain apprehensive” at committee votes that defeated amendments that would have protected freedom of conscience and ensured that no taxpayer money went to abortions.
“If acceptable language in these areas cannot be found, we will have to oppose the health care bill vigorously,” the bishops said.
“We remain committed to working with the administration, congressional leadership and our allies to produce final health reform legislation that will reflect our principles,” they added.
The Baucus bill does not include a public insurance option, which some health care reform advocates have pushed for. The 10-year, $829 billion bill would limit co-payments and deductibles and would help low-income families purchase coverage. It would set up exchanges that would allow people to shop for health insurance and would make most Americans buy some kind of coverage.
The only Republican on the finance committee to vote for the measure was Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine.
In the U.S. House lawmakers were working to finalize their own health care reform proposal, which includes a public plan. Action on the floor of both the House and Senate was expected in the coming weeks. Whatever legislation is passed by each chamber would then go to a conference committee, where differences in the two measures would be hammered out.
In separate statements released Oct. 13, the Catholic bishops of California and Pennsylvania echoed the concerns about reform bills raised in the letter to Congress by the USCCB committee chairmen about abortion, conscience protection, immigrants and affordability.
In the statement from the California Catholic Conference, Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, conference president, noted that the U.S. bishops have been calling for universal health care for more than three decades.
“And it appears we are now closer to the reality than ever before. For that we are grateful,” he said. “However, the bills that have either passed out of committee or are poised to do so have failed to adequately protect human life.”
Bishop Blaire called on Catholics and all people of good will to join the bishops in urging senators and members of Congress “to protect basic human life and dignity in any national health care plan as they hammer out the details of this far-reaching and needed reform.”
In a statement released by the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the bishops there said that “health care is not just another issue for the Church or for a healthy society. It is a fundamental issue. Health care is a critical component of the Catholic Church’s ministry.”
The health care reform debate “presents our country with a unique opportunity to improve the health care system for all, especially those who lack affordable coverage and decent care. We believe that health care reform legislation can be drafted to truly protect human life and dignity,” they said.
“Catholics have been leading proponents of health care reform for many years in America. If a final health care reform bill does not have respect for life at all stages of development, respect for consciences, affordability and inclusion of all of society, the bishops will be forced to oppose it,” they said. “Therefore, we pray that critical shortcomings in the current proposals will be remedied.”