Catholic Health Association officials said the organization supports provisions in the President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act that would expand health care access and affordability as the country recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Speaking Jan. 31 during an online session of the annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, Paulo Pontemayor, CHA’s director of government relations, said the bill includes provisions for which the association has advocated in its years-long push to eliminate disparities in health care access and service.

“We … know that many times that health care in this country is done in a way that is inequitable,” he said.

CHA specifically supports extending marketplace premiums and tax-sharing subsidies under the Affordable Care Act. Such provisions have been shown to lower the cost of insurance for people, Pontemayor said.

The Biden administration reported that 14.5 million people signed up for health insurance under the ACA during the enrollment period that ended Jan. 15, with a few states still having to report. Pontemayor said the high level of enrollment demonstrates its popularity.

CHA also is backing the bill’s plan to allow an estimated 2 million low-income, uninsured people to qualify for subsidies in states that did not enact Medicaid expansion.

“We want to make sure that those people who have no ability to access quality health care, really through no fault of their own, have a way to do that,” he said.

Other components of the bill that CHA is backing include funding for Medicaid home and community-based services; permanently extending Medicaid postpartum coverage to 12 months; and policies that support front-line health care workers.

The Build Back Better Act’s future is uncertain as the U.S. Senate has delayed consideration of the bill while senators grapple with the Feb. 18 deadline to fund the federal government and other rising legislative priorities. The House of Representatives narrowly approved the bill in November.

Pontemayor also said CHA is working with Congress on several other priorities including maintaining a strong social services safety net; preserving restrictions on federal funding of abortion; strengthening care for the aged and people needing chronic care; protecting human life; and ensuring conscience protections for health care workers.

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Workshops throughout the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering addressed numerous social outreach efforts to people on the margins, addressing poverty, immigration, racism, prison ministry, worker rights, mental health and economic development.

The impact of large-scale spending by the federal government in response to the economic fallout of the pandemic since 2020 helped families avoid falling into deep poverty, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Danilo Trisi, the center’s director of poverty and inequality research, said during a workshop on anti-poverty programs that the unprecedented spending enacted in four relief and recovery packages since the pandemic began in March 2020 helped families endure prolonged periods of unemployment, continue paying rent or mortgages, and keep food on the table.

Government data shows that 10 million people benefited from expanded unemployment insurance, 40 million families received additional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, and more than 61 million children in more than 36 million households benefited from the expanded child tax credit, Trisi said.

Members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul conference at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Alpharetta, Georgia, outside of Atlanta, told the workshop they saw how federal spending aided the people they serve, especially when it came to housing.

“We did see a tremendous impact of the government response as it came in. It was sort of staggering,” said Matt Toddy, caseworker within the conference.

The number of people served jumped 32% during 2020 as the pandemic took hold, he said. Case numbers declined slight in 2021, he said.

Much of the assistance the St. Thomas Aquinas conference provided related to rental assistance and utilities. Many people, Toddy explained, were lodged in extended stay hotels because of a shortage of affordable housing in the communities north of Atlanta.

“Affordable housing, you know, is a big, big problem in our community, the lack of it. And there’s various ways to increase it, but it seems like it’s disappearing more than it’s growing,” Toddy said.

Jack Murphy, who works with Toddy at the parish and chairs the society’s national Voice of the Poor Committee, described the situation as “very dire” for some people. Census Bureau data showed that 4,000 families moved from the area during the pandemic, an indication, Murphy suspected, of the high cost of housing.

He said the national Society of St. Vincent de Paul has strongly advocated with Congress for extending the benefits enacted in future legislation.

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A Jan. 30 session on racism reviewed efforts that two organizations were taking to educate about systemic racism and its long-standing impact on poverty.

The Society of St. Vincent DePaul’s Voice of the Poor Committee and Systemic Change Task Force developed a webinar series after the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers in 2020 that explored the role of racism as a driver of poverty.

Jack Murphy, who chairs the committee, said the webinars were necessary because many of the people who participate in the society’s local conferences have never experienced the challenges affecting Black, Latino and immigrants they serve.

He told workshop participants that many Vincentians did not understand the effect that race can have on people’s status in society. He said they came away with a new understanding of their work and why it is important to seek systemic change in government and social structures in order to end racism.

“We can’t systematically change the trajectory of a lot of the people in our community unless we start dealing with racism,” he said of the series.

Vincentians also learned that race can be a difficult topic to discuss, Murphy said.

“We have to have these conversations with people that look like us and with people that don’t look like us to make sure that we are understanding pain and the division that people in our communities feel,” Murphy said.

Pamela Matambanadzo, who chairs the society’s National Multicultural and Diversity Committee, explained that as the society has taken a closer look at racism, it has rooted its work more deeply in prayer.

Vincentians are learning anew how to speak with the individuals and families they serve, she said, “to leave ourselves behind and let the Holy Spirit use us as a vessel to speak.”

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Another Jan. 30 session reviewed the efforts of the Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition to implement restorative justice practices in local prisons.

Restorative justice seeks to involve the various parties affected by a crime in an effort to identify the harm, determine who was impacted and how, and discuss the steps necessary for reconciliation and healing.

Caitlyn Morneau, director of restorative justice at the Catholic Mobilizing Network, said restorative justice practices uphold human dignity, build relationships and promote accountability with the goal of transformation for all involved.

Joe Cotton, director of pastoral care and outreach in the Archdiocese of Seattle, described restorative justice as a healing ministry for all people who are involved in or affected by incarceration or crime.

The coalition works to help prison ministers implement restorative justice practices in their outreach efforts, he explained, while sharing best practices and resources while assisting in problem-solving.

Resources include a Lenten education packet, a film highlighting how to bring contemplative prayer to the prison ministry, monthly webinars and virtual townhall meetings that allow ministers to share experiences.

More information on the network is online at www.catholicprisonministries.org.

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“Justice at the Margins” was the theme of the Jan. 29-Feb. 1 Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, held virtually for the second year in a row because of the pandemic.

The annual gathering is sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, Catholic Charities USA, the Catholic Health Association, Catholic Relief Services and Bread for the World, along with other USCCB offices and 20 national organizations.