Politics of health care 'reform' can make you sick

By Sister Mary Ann Walsh
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Catholic bishops have urged the government to reform our ailing health care system for decades. To do this, the House and Senate have now passed bills with this aim, bills that must be reconciled into one final bill. But the present state of affairs is enough to make you sick. The gamesmanship in Congress relates more to politics than health and has created serious problems. Despite the bishops' desire for health care reform, the proposed bills could turn the bishops from allies into opponents. So far, health care reform it is not.

Problem # 1. Paying for abortion. The bishops have argued for an "abortion neutral" bill, so that no one can use health care reform to put money into elective abortions. The bishops appreciate the Hyde Amendment on abortion funding, which precludes using federal dollars for elective abortions or health plans that cover such abortions; they want similar language in health care reform legislation. Hyde, which passed first in 1976, tries to ensure what is becoming more and more understood in America , that no one should be forced to pay for another person's abortion and that the government should not be in the abortion-funding business. The Stupak Amendment in the House bill said it well when it declared in reference to elective abortions, that no funds authorized or appropriated by the House health care reform legislation "may be used to pay for any abortion or to cover any part of the costs of any health plan that includes coverage of abortion."

Problem # 2. Conscience rights. Under both the House and Senate bills, employers such as the Church, may be forced to provide for services that directly violate their teachings. There is no way that the church should be required, within its own house, to purchase insurance plans that include procedures the Church opposes. Similarly, health care facilities and health care personnel have the right to operate according to their value systems. Among other things, the final bill needs language like that found in the Weldon Amendment, passed in 2004, that prevents federal and state governments from discriminating against hospitals, physicians and nurses that do not perform, refer for, or pay for abortions. Health care facilities and health care personnel have the right to operate according to a value system honoring each human life.

Problem # 3. Basic fairness. Both House and Senate bills leave in place a policy that prevents legal immigrants, that is, people who are on the path to citizenship and pay taxes, from access to health services available to other taxpayers. These are men and women who, though they can fight in the Army, are still ineligible for Medicaid for the first five years of their U.S. residency. It is appalling that we can ask people to risk their lives to defend the nation, but cannot let them access to the country's basic health care. Legislators should ensure that any final bill provides equitable access to health care for legal immigrants and their families.

Problem # 4. Risk to overall health. The Senate bill does not allow undocumented persons to buy insurance with their own money. This position not only smacks of unfairness - if people want to buy insurance, why not let them? - it is bad economics. The more people in the insurance pool the better. The position also threatens the overall public health. Right now, many undocumented persons have to rely on the emergency room for basic medical care - the most expensive ordinary care there is - to deal with matters as simple and contagious as strep throat and tuberculosis. If as many as possible had access to decent health care, including care that prevents serious disease or treats it early, keeping the spread of disease in check would have a chance of becoming the rule.

Problem #5. Affordability. As written now, a family of four earning $29,500 would have to pay four percent of its income for health insurance premiums and would have inadequate protection on high deductibles and co-payments. That's almost $2,000 dollars a year. Out-of-pocket expenses on health care could be near twenty percent of their income. Look at the cost of food, housing, transportation, and clothing and do the math. It is heartless to force people to have to choose rent over health care or medical treatment over minimum financial solvency.

We need health care reform in America and we're close to attaining it, but if decent health care becomes a matter of politics over the public good, we'll all lose. That's enough to make you sick.

(Read more about Catholic social teachings.)

Sister Mary Ann Walsh is a Sister of Mercy of the Americas and director of Media Relations for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops