As I write, there are two proposed bills in the Senate and three in the House of Representatives. In spite of reassurances from the president and various members of Congress, the Catholic perspective apparently has fallen on deaf ears. The bottom line is that bishops (and hopefully those open to the position of the Church) will have to oppose a final health care bill if it fails to address key concerns. There are three of them:

• Policies against abortion funding and in support of conscience rights must be in the bill;

• Health care should be affordable and available to the poor and vulnerable; and

• The needs of legal immigrants and their families should be met.

A news release from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops dated Oct. 14 states: “Time is running short and if provisions are not fixed, the bishops have been clear that they will have no choice but to oppose the final bill. The stated purpose of pursuing health care reform was to provide those without health care coverage access to quality and affordable health care. There is real doubt that the ultimate bill will achieve that goal.”

No current health care bill approved by committee to date is consistent with long-standing and widely supported federal policies on abortion and conscience rights.

None of the pending bills retain long-standing current policies against abortion funding or abortion coverage mandates, and none fully protect the conscience rights in health care. To be acceptable, the final health care reform bill needs its own provision against abortion funding. Efforts to do that to date have consistently been voted down by the majority party.

As to the coverage of immigrants, Kevin Appleby, director of migration and refugee policy for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, notes that “if the goal of health care reform is to reduce significantly the number of uninsured, the Senate bills fall well short.” Millions of legal immigrants, he has pointed out, and their families would be left outside the system, dependent upon emergency rooms for their primary care if the present bills prevail.

The bishops of the United States have advocated for health care reform for decades. In an October message sent to members of Congress, it was stated: “Catholic moral tradition teaches that health care is a basic human right, essential to protecting human life and dignity. Much-needed reform of our health care system must be pursued in ways that serve the life and dignity of all, never in ways that undermine or violate these fundamental values. We (bishops) will work tirelessly to remedy these central problems and help pass real reform that clearly protects the life, dignity and health of all.”

If you watch television, you are well aware that millions are being spent to further the agenda of various interest groups. Fear is the commonly utilized vehicle. The conflicting messages can cause a person to shake his head. Cutting through the hype, the basic battle is whether basic health care is a human right.

On this fundamental issue, the United States is the odd man out among the world’s advanced, free-market democracies. All the other industrialized democracies guarantee health care for everyone, young or old, sick or well, rich or poor, native or immigrant. As noted in an excellent article by T.R. Reid that appeared in the Sept. 21 edition of Newsweek, the United States is the only advanced country that has failed to make a commitment to provide medical care to everyone who needs it.

Americans die each year of treatable diseases because they lack insurance and can’t afford a doctor. The T.R. Reid article points out that this generally happens to people with a chronic illness who have too much money to qualify for Medicaid, but too little to pay for the drugs and treatment they need to stay alive. Among the rich nations of the world, this happens only in the United States. Likewise, the United States is the only developed country where medical bankruptcies happen. Seven hundred thousand people go bankrupt due to medical bills each year. This bewilders the citizens of countries where basic health care is considered a right.

The elephant in our national living room is whether a rich society such as ours should provide basic health care to everyone who needs it. It is a moral question.

If the answer to that question is “yes,” that country will build a health-care system like the ones in Britain, Germany, Canada, Italy, France, Japan and elsewhere, where everyone has basic coverage. If the answer is “no,” that nation will decide against universal coverage. As a result, its citizens will end up with a system where some people get the finest medical care available, in the finest hospitals, while others are left without the care they need. That is where the United States is today. From a moral perspective, it is not where we should be.

Printed with permission from the Diocese of Lafayette-in-Indiana.

Some point out that with universal health care, non-emergency cases often face long waits for medical attention. Given the horror stories, how do the citizens of those nations feel about inconveniences such as delays in securing the services of a doctor or in obtaining admittance to a hospital? The Newsweek article quotes a Canadian: “Canadians don’t mind waiting for elective care all that much, so long as the rich Canadian and the poor Canadian have to wait about the same amount of time.” Is that where we as Americans should be? Should an occasional foul-up be used as an excuse for not having universal health care? Aren’t there foul-ups in our present system?

It is redundant, but it needs to be said again and again: From the Catholic perspective, basic health care is a right. But it must not provide for abortion, it must provide conscience protection, it must allow immigrants and the poor access to basic health care.

What can you do? Contact your legislators, urging them to insist upon a floor vote on pro-life amendments to correct the serious flaws in any health care reform legislation.

Change is needed. There is still time to reform health care in the right way.