Health Care Reform – What Went Wrong?

Here we are just a couple days after the U.S. Congress passed Obamacare and we’re faced with the unpleasant task of asking the question, what went wrong?

Needless to say, many regrets will emerge in the weeks and months ahead, but one of the most difficult to swallow lies in the approach taken by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The Hyde Band-aid Leaves Much Uncovered

Despite the Catholic clarity with which some bishops separately approached this issue, from day one, the USCCB position was inadequate because it was based on the false premise that placing unprecedented control of the U.S. health care system in the hands of the federal government — in this case, under an Administration that clearly does not value human life — was a worthy effort.

“Our goal has been really for decades to have universal health care reform. We’re very much in favor of that; we were in favor of that many decades before it was fashionable,” said USCCB Associate Pro-Life Director, Richard Doerflinger.

“Unfortunately,” he continued, “the Senate health care reform bill is morally unacceptable.”

In a March 17th contribution to the Washington Post, Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, spokesperson for the USCCB, elaborated on what it would take for the legislation to become acceptable to the bishops.

“What the bishops have said is that for health care reform they would live with the status quo where the government does not pay for abortions or abortion-containing health plans [via the Hyde Amendment], but people who want abortion coverage can purchase it with other funds.”

Sr. Walsh went on to say that the Hyde Amendment “saves taxpayers from the ignominy of seeing their tax money used to end innocent lives.” If only that were entirely true!

Make no mistake, Hyde is better than nothing, but it is no pro-life panacea; it simply shifts the cost of abortion coverage away from the Federal government. The fact is, government funded abortion is taking place in the very shadow of USCCB headquarters in Washington, D.C. and seventeen other Hyde-complaint states with local tax payer money right now!

Remember who we’re dealing with here; this Administration considers abortion a “right” and a matter of “reproductive health.” To imagine that Obamacare — even with Hyde — would result in anything other that an explosion of locally funded abortion mills is a long-shot wager at best, and frankly, shockingly naïve.

So why would the Conference even dare to roll those dice? Well, in spite of its serious commitment to the pro-life cause, the USCCB was so overwhelmingly predisposed to embracing statist solutions to the nation’s health care challenges that it lost its perspective.

Catholic Social Teaching Went Missing

Imagine how well the Catholic faithful and our nation would have been served if the Conference had placed the debate where it truly belonged: squarely within the fullness of Catholic social teaching.

If the USCCB had done this, it would have been abundantly clear to all concerned that Catholic teaching is not a mandate for socialized medicine and government enforced universal health insurance. It is a call to morality, mercy and charity. It includes both solidarity and subsidiarity. It upholds man’s dignity through collective effort in order to meet the needs of the broader community, especially those of the poor, but it also defends individual freedoms, including freedom from excessive government control — in this case, control at the hands of the most radically pro-death Administration and Congress this nation has ever seen.

My comments are not intended to level criticism at the bishops per se, but rather to offer a sober assessment of that bureaucratic behemoth known as the USCCB. Individual bishops have indeed spoken well on the topic, but the clarity that some of them offered was largely drowned out by the incoherence of the Conference.

Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien of Baltimore, for example, cited “the Catholic principle of subsidiarity” saying, “the Church believes that decisions should be made as close to those affected by them as possible, commensurate with the common good. This is especially true of the conscience-laden decisions often involved in health care.”

Of the numerous pages dedicated to “health care reform” on the USCCB website, not one mentions the incredibly important principle of subsidiarity even once. Had the Conference taken an approach similar to that of Archbishop O’Brien and other individual bishops, we might not be licking our wounds this very day.

From a thoroughly Catholic perspective, the health care reform debate wasn’t nearly as simple as the Conference made it out to be, as though preventing public funding of abortion and negotiating conscience clauses was enough to render Obamacare worthy of Catholic support. This, however, is exactly the stance taken by the USCCB from the very outset, and it only opened the door for those difference-making pro-life legislators to take comfort in the promise of an executive order restricting federal funding of abortion and justify voting “yes.”

The Conference did send a memo to legislative assistants Sunday morning warning that legal experts don’t believe that an executive order is sufficient to override the provisions enshrined in the current legislation, but it was too little too late. The USCCB had already taken on the posture of a one trick pony; it had relinquished a veritable arsenal of Catholic social doctrine in favor of one silver bullet, and once the Stupak block was convinced that abortion funding was going to be restricted, the Conference was out of ammunition.

Confused and Confusing Communication Serves No One Well

The underlying problem with the Conference’s chosen approach is further evidenced by an analysis of claims made in the official “USCCB Position on Health Care Reform” as quoted in italics below:  [ ]

In our Catholic tradition, health care is a basic human right.

In repeatedly speaking of “health care” without any qualification or definition whatsoever, the USCCB had effectively allowed the political activists to define the issue according to their agenda. Remember; this Administration and the majority in Congress consider abortion a matter of health care.

As for what the Conference considered that “health care” which is a “basic human right” to include we were left to wonder; does this refer to interventional procedures, or annual check-ups? Are we talking about having moles removed, or prostate exams? The USCCB position doesn’t specify, but it does elaborate:

This teaching is rooted in the biblical call to heal the sick and to serve “the least of these,” our concern for human life and dignity, and the principle of the common good.

As with “health care,” leaving “the common good” without needed Catholic definition makes it a wax nose that activists can shape to their own liking. But at least the issue is being framed within the context of Sacred Scripture. So… the biblical call to heal the sick is the real issue, right? Healing the sick and serving the poor is indeed a true moral imperative, so that must be it… but just when it seemed that the crux of the matter was becoming clear, the Conference changed course:

Unfortunately, tens of millions of Americans do not have health insurance. According to the Catholic bishops of the United States, the current health care system is in need of fundamental reform.

This is a confusing turn. Is it about healing the sick or about “health insurance?” Does the USCCB really mean to say that health insurance is a basic human right?

We’re then informed that since a large group of people allegedly don’t have health insurance (never mind the actual health of these individuals, or their actual access to health care) the determination is that the entire health care system — the finest in the world — is in need of not just improvement, but fundamental reform.

This is a Pelosi-esque leap of logic, especially when we consider that the Conference — under the solitary condition of the Hyde Amendment’s flimsy guarantees — was fully willing to grant unprecedented control of the U.S. healthcare system to the same government that has nearly destroyed Medicare and Medicaid.

Commenting on the USCCB position, Richard Doerflinger stated that “health coverage is a matter of justice,” a position for which he claimed recourse to the social encyclical of Pope John XIII, Pacem in Terris.

The trouble is Pacem in Terris doesn’t mention the insipid term “health coverage” even once. In fact, it doesn’t even mention “health care,” but rather “medical care” and man’s “right to be looked after in the event of ill health.”

There’s a very big difference between an entitlement to “health coverage” and a right to “medical care.” In fact, it’s rather like the difference between triple bypass surgery and sleeping well at night knowing that your co-pay is low in the unlikely event you catch a nasty case of pink eye. So which is it?

What We Needed… and Still Need

What we, the faithful, needed was an approach to this matter that is more dogmatically Catholic than that of a political action committee.  What we needed was to see the debate framed within the fullness of Catholic social doctrine from day one. The USCCB never adequately explained its position, mainly because it approached the debate far more like a political action committee than a body of Apostles.

The lesson in all of this is clear: those bishops who are inclined individually to embrace and promote a fully Catholic approach to pressing national issues must wrest control of the USCCB from those bureaucrats who are unwilling to follow suit. In the interim, our faithful and intrepid shepherds must band together publically to clarify and counteract the Conference’s untenable positions when the good of the faithful and the state of the union truly demand it — as was the case in matter of national health care reform.

In the long run, what we most need for our bishops to do is to teach us, to sanctify us, and to govern us in the name of Christ.  If they can resist the temptation to wade into the heady “public policy” waters that surround the Washington beltway long enough to carry out this God-given mission with consistency and clarity, rest assured, there will be plenty of well-formed Catholics in both public and private life alike to serve the poor, the sick, and the suffering in a manner that is reflective of our innate human dignity for decades to come.

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