In a Jan. 18 letter to members of the 112th Congress, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops advised significant changes to the health care overhaul passed by the previous session of Congress.
One day after the conference released the letter to the public, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to repeal the law in question, the 2010 “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.”
Significantly, the USCCB has chosen neither to support, nor to oppose, Republican-led efforts to repeal the law. Instead, the bishops plan to “continue to devote our efforts to correcting serious moral problems in the current law, so health-care reform can truly be life-affirming for all.”
Although the overall repeal measure stands little chance of passing in the Senate after its approval by the House, it is seen as the prelude to a strategy that could result in changes to significant portions of the overhaul.
These changes could incorporate some of the suggestions that the bishops made in their recent letter that explained their critical but nuanced position on health care reform.
The letter's signatories were Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, and Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles – the chairmen of the committees on Pro-life Activities, Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Migration, respectively.
They reaffirmed the absolute importance of “basic health care for all,” which Catholic social teaching affirms as a basic right rather than an earned privilege. But they noted that “it has never been, and is not now, for the bishops to decide the best means” –whether completely public, private, or somewhere in between– “to realize this essential goal.”
The bishops' conference had strongly criticized the health care reform bill passed during the 2010 session of Congress for lacking provisions that would ensure taxpayer money did not fund abortion. Legal experts at the bishops' conference said that President Obama's executive order –purporting to block the act from funding abortion– would not be effective across the board, but only in certain limited cases.
The bishops have also consistently noted the law's failure to provide access to reliable health care for illegal immigrants living in the U.S., which they described as an injustice.
In the Jan. 18 letter, the bishops reiterated these objections, without going so far as to say that last year's health care reform bill should necessarily be repealed on this basis.
Instead, they urged passage of legislation along the lines of a bill proposed –but never voted upon– during the last session, Rep. Joseph Pitts and Dan Lipinski's H.R. 5111. That bill would have amended the Affordable Care Act to prevent it explicitly from either providing abortion directly, or funding health care plans and community health centers that do so.
The bishops also praised the provisions of last year's proposed bill H.R. 6570, which was intended to ensure that the health care bill did not force individuals to provide or purchase coverage conflicting in any manner with their religious beliefs, or other principles of conscience.
Like the Pitts-Lipinski proposal, this move to amend the Affordable Care Act never went before Congress for a vote, meaning it would have to be reintroduced in some manner during the 112th Congress. The bishops indicated they would “strongly support” any new proposals to prohibit abortion funding and protect conscience rights under the health care bill.
“We will advocate for addressing the current problems in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” they resolved, “as well as others that may become apparent in the course of its implementation.”
The Catholic Health Association, a private trade association of hospitals which came out in favor of the Affordable Care Act over the bishops' objections in 2010, issued a statement of its own on the same day as the U.S. bishops.
That statement, which opposed any attempt to repeal the law, did not address what the bishops called “serious moral problems” with its proposals or omissions.
Instead, while acknowledging that “no one piece of legislation is perfect,” Catholic Health Association President Sr. Carol Keehan stated that “many of the (bill's) provisions … are essential and should remain in law,” as a means to the Church's goal of expanding access to health care.
Coming down on the other side of the repeal question, the National Right to Life Committee also wrote to Congress, earlier in the month.
The committee favored an outright reversal of the health care overhaul, rather than the specific changes that the U.S. bishops recommended, as a means of preventing the government from funding abortion within the category of health care.
In its analysis of the Affordable Care Act, the National Right to Life Committee drew attention to the same avenues for abortion funding that the bishops want to be closed off through subsequent legislation.
The committee also alleged that other parts of the act could result in government rationing of critical care and lead to the promotion of euthanasia. Consequently, the committee's directors held that “the law is so riddled with provisions that violate right-to-life principles that it cannot simply be patched” through the kind of surgical revisions suggested by the bishops.
The U.S. bishops, for their part, have given no indication that they see the promotion of euthanasia as a possible effect of the law. Richard Doerflinger, Associate Director for Pro-Life Activities at the U.S. bishops' conference, told CNA/EWTN News on Jan. 5 that critics of health care reform were unrealistically exaggerating the prospect of government “death panels.”