The Bishops Have a Second Reason for Opposing the Healthcare Bill

Deal W. Hudson
December 10, 2009

In a statement released today by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, President Francis Cardinal George spoke plainly in response to the defeat of the Nelson-Hatch amendment to the health-care bill in the Senate:

Failure to exclude abortion funding will turn allies into adversaries and require us and others to oppose this bill because it abandons both principle and precedent (emphasis added).

Abortion funding is not the only thing wrong with the health care bill, but it is the worst thing, and I admire Cardinal George for his forthright manner in warning Congress. How will all this play out? Will the bishops prevail in getting abortion funding out of the Senate bill, as they did with the House version?

A great deal depends on how much of their political muscle the bishops are willing to use – they pulled out all the stops with their parish inserts on the eve of the Stupak-Pitts vote, and presumably, they will do it again, if necessary.

Most Catholics are justly proud of their bishops for taking a firm stand on the non-negotiable teaching of protecting innocent life. Catholics like Kathleen Kennedy Townsend are flying high with rhetoric like this: “As Catholics, are we so laser-focused on the issue of abortion that we are willing to join ‘tea partyers’ and the like to bring down the healthcare reform bill?”

I doubt if many bishops or USCCB staff thought of themselves as belonging to the tea party crowd – especially given their concern for providing immigrants, regardless of their legal status, access to health insurance. In fact, the importance the bishops attach to medical coverage for immigrants has been almost buried by the abortion issue in the media coverage.

One of the main reasons the USCCB supports the public option in health-care reform is immigrants. The Senate version of the bill does not make any provision for allowing immigrants to buy into the insurance plan, while the House version does. Roger Cardinal Mahoney wrote in the New York Times on Tuesday, “To deny our immigrant brothers and sisters basic healthcare coverage is immoral.”

This explains why the USCCB statement on the defeat of the Nelson-Hatch amendment contained a comment from Bishop John Wester, chair of the bishops’ Committee on Migration:

We believe universal coverage should be truly universal, not deny health care to those in need because of where they come from or when they arrive here. The Senate proposal falls short in these areas. Immigrants deserve access to health care for their benefit and the common good of all of society.

Bishop Wester, the ordinary of Salt Lake City, has strongly advocated the House version of the bill, arguing:

Although uninsured immigrants use emergency rooms much less than U.S. citizens, the cost of their care ultimately falls upon American taxpayers, either through higher insurance rates or tax money paid directly to providers. Permitting the undocumented to use their own money to purchase coverage would help alleviate some of this fiscal and financial burden on Americans.

The Senate version of the bill presently requires a five-year waiting period before a legal immigrant who is not a citizen can receive a federal subsidy. It also bars undocumented immigrants from accessing health insurance exchanges, even if they pay with their own private money. (This is subject to change with the modifications being made to the public option.)

The bottom line is this: The Catholic bishops have two good reasons, not one, for turning from “allies into adversaries” on health-care reform. If the bishops won’t countenance a bill with federal funding for abortion, the lack of coverage for immigrants will only increase their resolve to kill it.

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