By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON – In the end, the successful battle to include strict language prohibiting funding for abortions, led by pro-life congressional Democrats with the strong support of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is what made the difference in the Nov. 7 House vote to pass a sweeping health care reform bill.

In a rare Saturday night vote, the House approved the Affordable Health Care for America Act, 220-215, moving the legislation on to the Senate, which was expected to take up debate on its own health care bill later in November.

Assuming the Senate passes a version of the legislation, differences between the two bills will have to be reconciled separately. That legislation would go back to both houses of Congress for final approval.

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Key to passing the House bill was the approval of an amendment by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., to prohibit the use of federal funds to pay for abortion, including barring abortion coverage from insurance plans which consumers purchase using government subsidies. The USCCB and other pro-life organizations had threatened to oppose any final bill that did not include such provisions.

The final bill fell short of another element pushed strongly by the Church in recent weeks. It would bar people who are in the country illegally from receiving any government assistance to get health coverage. The U.S. bishops also had urged that the legislation allow all immigrants access to the health care system, regardless of legal status.

What the bill does do is expand health insurance to an estimated 30 million people who currently lack coverage, meaning an estimated 96 percent of Americans would have access to more affordable health care.

Various news sources as well as people involved on the Hill reported on the critical role of last-minute, behind-the-scenes negotiations among House leaders, White House staff, Catholic bishops and their staff. Also essential were talks with Stupak and others who were holding firm on withholding their votes pending acceptance of his amendment.

Chicago Cardinal Francis E. George, president of the USCCB, spoke with Pelosi Nov. 6, encouraging her to let Stupak’s amendment come for a vote. Other bishops also weighed in by phone with various members of Congress, including by encouraging Republican leaders not to try to block progress that was being made in getting the abortion amendment passed.

When Stupak’s amendment was allowed to come to the floor, it was approved by a vote of 240-194, with the support of many Republicans who did not ultimately vote for the legislation itself.

Only one Republican voted for the overall bill, Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao of Louisiana, a Catholic and former Jesuit seminarian who was elected in December 2008 to fill a vacancy created by the resignation of Democratic Rep. William Jefferson, who was forced out of office in a bribery scandal.

In a statement, Stupak, a Catholic who has spoken many times of his often lonely role as a pro-life Democrat in Congress, focused not on his successful abortion amendment but on the overall bill, which he called the most significant reform to government and private health insurance programs since Medicare and Medicaid were created in 1965.

His statement noted that the bill includes reforms for both the uninsured and those who already have insurance. Medicare recipients will receive additional prescription drug coverage and be entitled to full coverage for preventative care.

Other components of the bill include:

nInsurance companies would be prohibited from discriminating against people with pre-existing medical conditions. They also would no longer be able to impose lifetime caps on benefits or cancel coverage for any excuse when policyholders become ill.

n It would give tax subsidies to small employers to help them provide insurance for their workers.

n It would create a health insurance exchange where people who are not currently covered through an employer-purchased plan, Medicare, Medicaid, Veterans Affairs or other government insurance could get coverage through private or federal providers.

In a press event in the White House Rose Garden Nov. 8, President Barack Obama said the legislation would “provide stability and security for Americans who have insurance; quality, affordable options for those who don’t; and bring down the cost of health care for families, businesses and our government, while strengthening the financial health of Medicare. It is legislation that is fully paid for and it will reduce our long-term federal deficit.”

He voiced his gratitude, “given the heated and often misleading rhetoric surrounding this legislation,” for the “courageous vote” of many members of Congress.

In a statement issued late Nov. 9, Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, lauded the Nov. 7 vote and urged the Senate to follow the House’s example.

The conference “will remain vigilant and involved throughout this entire process to assure that these essential provisions are maintained and included in the final legislation,” he said.

He added the bishops “remain deeply concerned” about health care reform as the debate now moves to the Senate, which will now take up its own version of health care legislation.

Assuming that measure passes, differences between the bills will be worked out in a conference committee and both House and Senate will have to vote again on the final version.

Cardinal George said the Catholic Church is concerned about how health reform “affects the poor and vulnerable, and those at the beginning and end of life.”

“We will continue to insist that health care reform legislation must protect conscience rights,” he said. “We support measures to make health care more affordable for low-income people and the uninsured. We remain deeply concerned that immigrants be treated fairly and not lose the health care coverage that they now have.”

Statement from Cardinal Rigali on Stupak Amendment and health care reform

Thanks to all of those in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia who offered prayers and took action to urge the U.S. House of Representatives to protect innocent life as they weighed the very important issue of needed health care reform.

Saturday, November 7, 2009 marked a momentous event in our nation’s history when the House voted in the Stupak Amendment not to expand abortion through health care reform.

Special thanks must be given to Representative Joseph Pitts (Chester County), who took a principled, moral stand for the protection of life from conception to natural death. Without such a vote, the Stupak Amendment would not have succeeded.

Please continue your prayers and contacts with legislators as we work toward heath care reform in this nation that will respect the lives of the most vulnerable among us.