WASHINGTON (CNS) — The U.S. Senate must reject any health care reform bill that will “fundamentally alter the social safety net for millions of people,” said the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

“Removing vital coverage for those most in need is not the answer to our nation’s health care problems, and doing so will not help us build toward the common good,” Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, said in a letter to U.S. senators released late June 27.

He urged senators to reject such changes “for the sake of persons living on the margins of our health care system.”

A day earlier, Bishop Dewane issued a statement saying that the loss of affordable health care under the Republicans’ proposal was “simply unacceptable.”

The Senate released its Better Care Reconciliation Act in “discussion draft” form June 22. In an analysis of the proposal aimed at replacing the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the measure would leave 22 million more people without insurance.

In response to that report, Bishop Dewane said June 26 that “this moment cannot pass without comment. … As the USCCB has consistently said, the loss of affordable access for millions of people is simply unacceptable. These are real families who need and deserve health care.”

On the afternoon of June 27, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, announced senators will not act on the bill until much later in July. News reports said McConnell and others determined they did not even have enough votes to begin debate on the measure. Senate leaders had hoped to vote on it before the July 4 recess.

In his letter to senators, Bishop Dewane reiterated initial concerns outlined by the USCCB when the draft was first released, namely that any health care reform bill must uphold several moral principles: affordability; access for all; respect for life; and protection of conscience rights. The bishops also have stressed the need for U.S. health care policy “to improve real access” to health care for immigrants.

Loss of coverage “will be devastating” to the people who can least afford it at a time “when tax cuts would seem to benefit the wealthy” and when increases in defense spending are being contemplated, he said in the June 27 letter.

The U.S. bishops do “value the language” in the Senate bill that recognizes “abortion is not health care,” he continued, and it at least partially succeeds on conscience rights. But he said it needs to be strengthened to fully apply “the long-standing and widely supported Hyde Amendment protections. Full Hyde protections are essential and must be included in the final bill.”

Bishop Dewane said the Senate’s Better Care Reconciliation Act “is a slight improvement in limited ways” over the House version passed in May, called the American Health Care Act. “Overall, however, those enhancements do not overcome the BCRA’s failure to address the needs of the poor,” he said.

One part of the bill cuts the federal government’s share of funding for Medicaid to 57 percent of its cost over the next seven years. States have picked up the balance of the funding to date.

Under the Affordable Care Act, the government had guaranteed that its funding for adults newly eligible for Medicaid would fall to no lower than 90 percent of their costs. Many states expanded Medicaid coverage for all adults ages 18-65 with incomes up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level.

The bill also would defund Planned Parenthood for one year under the bill.

In his earlier statement, Bishop Dewane criticized the “per-capita cap” on Medicaid funding, which would no longer be an entitlement but have its own budget line item under the Better Care Reconciliation Act. The effect, he said, “would provide even less to those in need than the House bill. These changes will wreak havoc on low-income families and struggling communities, and must not be supported.”

In other reaction to the Senate measure, 300 Sisters of Mercy voiced their strong opposition to the Senate proposal in a statement issued June 27 from Buffalo, New York, where they gathered for the religious congregation’s chapter meeting.

“Health care for all, especially the most vulnerable is one of our enduring concerns,” said Sister Patricia McDermott, president of the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas. “The Sisters of Mercy have a legacy of advocacy for health care as a right, as well as providing care to generations of people. If the proposed legislation passes, health care ministries, social service agencies, and services for the elderly and family members will be impacted and suffer.”

The Senate measure also drew opposition from the president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA. In a letter to senators June 26, Dominican Sister Donna Markham urged senators to reject the bill and “craft a health care bill which truly expands coverage, reduces costs and respect human life and dignity.”

The bill in its current form “will have a devastating impact on the poor, marginalized and vulnerable in our country,” Sister Markham wrote.

While welcoming provisions in the bill to protect human life and increase flexibility to states in paying for health care, “a bill that rolls back gains in health care for the poor and vulnerable is deeply regretful,” her letter said.

“It is deeply shameful that instead of improving our health care system, the bill provides tax cuts for people making over $200,000 per year while at the same time demanding dramatic cuts or eliminating programs which help those most in need and most unlikely to afford health care,” it added.