The role of Catholics in rescuing health care

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Serious problems loom for the future of health care in the U.S. – and Catholics must help resolve them, experts say.

"We believe that the Catholic Church has the opportunity to provide the guidance necessary to enact meaningful health care policies that could uphold the sanctity of life from conception until natural death, as well as the common good, and to do it in financially-sustainable fashion," Dr. Lester Ruppersberger, president of the Catholic Medical Association, said at a press conference on health care Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

"Caring individuals are called to reflect upon the opportunity and the responsibility that we have to bring the message of healing and mercy given to us by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to the public square and to build a culture of life in health care," he added.

The panel event, "The Changing Face of Health Care and the 2016 Election," was held at the Catholic Information Center and featured Christian health care experts in policy, primary care, and health sharing ministries.

It explored current developments in health policy, the challenges they pose for both the consciences and the pocketbooks of average American families, and what Catholics could do to address these challenges.  

A primary problem with today's health care has been a "loss of the common understanding, both within and without the medical profession, of the sanctity and inviolability of each human life and the dignity of the person," Ruppersberger said.

This is seen through a health care system that treats people like numbers and statistics rather than as persons, he said, and through government mandates that trample the religious freedom of health care providers.

The average premium on the state health exchanges will reportedly increase 23 percent in 2017, Dr. Ruppersberger said. And prices are going up in part due to coercive government mandates that drugs and procedures that many Christians find morally objectionable have to be included in employee health plans.

The Affordable Care Act mandated preventive coverage in all health plans. After the law was passed, the Obama administration clarified that such preventive care would include coverage for birth control, sterilizations, and drugs that can cause abortions – the very "birth control mandate" that was challenged in court by hundreds of employers, states and individuals nationwide.

The result of purported "cost-free" coverage like this without copays or deductibles is that the cost is still passed on to the health care system as a whole, Ruppersberger insisted.

"Someone must pay for this service, which is why premiums are expected to increase in some states, like in Pennsylvania where I live, over 50 percent in 2017," he said, "with an average of 23 percent increase" nationwide. Providers like Aetna are already leaving the health exchanges, he noted.

Religious freedom concerns are also spurring many to look for a health care alternative to large insurers or the exchanges, as Christians don't want to subsidize abortions, contraceptives, and sterilizations in their health plans.

The Government Accountability Office found in 2014 that in several states there were no plan options on the health exchanges that excluded abortion coverage, and that in some cases federal subsidies were paying for abortion coverage.

Families must have the option of purchasing health care plans that respect their freedom of conscience, Ruppersberger insisted.

"This will serve the principle of subsidiarity, confirming right and the ability of the worker to dispose of his or her wages to serve his or her own basic needs and that of their families while mitigating barriers that interfere with the physician-patient relationship," he added.

The next presidential administration and the next Congress will probably make interpretations of religious freedom law that could affect the health care system in decisive fashion, Louis Brown of the Christ Medicus Foundation said.

"We are losing our religious freedom, particularly within our culture of health care, within the industry of health care, at amazing speed," Brown said.

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In addition to the next president nominating at least one Supreme Court justice – and the effect that could have on religious freedom jurisprudence – Congress could re-define the Weldon Amendment, which historically protected the religious freedom of health care institutions.

Regarding the amendment, the current head of the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services has already said that pro-life crisis pregnancy centers in California are not protected under the amendment from having to tell patients about their abortion options.

Congress might also vote on the Conscience Protection Act "which would codify much of the need to protect religious freedom in health care, the right of conscience," Brown added.

However, the next presidential administration will make some crucial decisions, he said, since the precedent has already been set that "a lot of these things can be done or undone without Congressional action." An example of this would be the transgender mandate from the Obama administration, mandating that doctors perform gender-transition services when requested, even if they believe such procedures would be harmful to patients.

Thus, health care alternatives must exist to allow families the freedom to obtain health care on their own terms, the panel insisted.

Such care would consist of smaller providers like health sharing ministries, direct primary care practices, and even experiments in insurance through dioceses and a national Catholic health plan.

Such "smaller" providers are actually what many people are looking for, Brown insisted, noting that there are over an estimated 10,000 direct primary care practices around the country.

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Brown, who represents the Christian health-sharing ministry CMF CURO, explained that "health sharing is very similar" to and can be "particularly effective" for low-income households, as the average premiums for healthy families in the ministry can be much lower than in employer-provided or exchange plans.

"This trend towards localism" and "towards community" is actually what young people want, he noted, pointing to a revival in urban neighborhoods where younger residents want the ability to walk to stores, bars, and churches. Local primary care practices and health-sharing ministries could provide this, he added.

"The message is that there's another way, and it's a better way," he said. "We have a little bit of a holy revolution in health care going on here."