The Failure of the Bishops’ Healthcare Bill Strategy

Deal W. Hudson
March 15, 2010

The Catholic Health Association (CHA), a lobbying group for Catholic hospitals, has offered its support for the health-care bill as it currently stands. A statement from CHA president Sr. Carol Keehan expresses “concern on life issues” while underscoring the bill’s requirement that “a separate check” would have to be written for abortion services.

Sister Keehan’s statement – along with the March 11 letter to Congress from her vice president, Michael F. Rodgers – is a masterpiece of doublespeak. On behalf of CHA, both Sister Keehan and Rodgers urge passage of the bill. But, while Sister Keehan cites the “separate check” stipulation for abortion coverage to assuage her concern, Rodgers admits that abortion coverage would have to be “amended” in a second corrections bill.

The position of CHA and its member hospitals puts them in direct opposition to the Catholic bishops, who have stated unambiguously that the Senate health-care bill leaves the door open for federal funds to be used for abortions. Bishop Robert F. Lynch of St. Petersburg is on the CHA board, while Bishop Kevin Vann of Ft. Worth is its episcopal liaison. Other board members include four CEOs and seven VPs of Catholic hospital systems.

CHA has long enjoyed an intimate relationship with the USCCB: It is often cited by the USCCB as a partner, along with Catholic Charities USA. In September 2008, Sister Keehan cosigned a letter with the head of Catholic Charities USA and Bishop William F. Murphy, the chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, urging Congress to pass a stimulus plan. CHA has also been involved in joint efforts with the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) in welfare-to-work projects. The long list of such collaborative efforts between CHA and the USCCB is easily found by searching the USCCB Web site.

At present, the USCCB has not issued any statement directly opposing CHA or any of the Catholic groups supporting the Senate bill, such as Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. The lack of such a statement allows the press, the White House, and the Congress to hold up these groups as providing official Catholic support to a public that doesn’t know any better.

A direct rebuke of CHA from the USCCB would not be in keeping with what I have termed the conference’s strategy of qualified support, but it would certainly keep wavering members of Congress from finding political cover from these groups willing to accept abortion funding.

With a vote on the bill coming as soon as Friday or Saturday, the USCCB is running out of time to get tough. The parish bulletin program emailed last Friday by the USCCB comes too late to have any serious impact on a vote this week.

The willingness of such an intimate partner with the USCCB to break with the bishops on the health-care bill is just another sign of the conference’s failure to negotiate powerfully with Congress and speak loudly and clearly to the media on this legislation. Its strategy has left them in a weakened position and allowed the initiative to be taken over by groups with apparent vested interest in seeing the bill passed: CHA would receive federal money for its hospitals, while Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good do little more than put a Catholic spin on Democratic talking points.

It’s common sense that you can’t win a negotiation if you aren’t willing to walk away from the table. Thus far, the USCCB hasn’t shown that willingness. Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando understood this when he wrote a few days ago, “No health-care legislation is better than bad health-care legislation.”

It’s alarming to hear the nonchalant attitude of those who remark how many other countries have government-run health care systems that pay for abortions, so why not us? Bishop Wenski knows what it is that has so many Catholics outraged at the prospect of this bill’s being passed:

Using taxpayers’ money to pay for other people’s abortions would make all citizens complicit in what many regard as a morally heinous act… Whatever you might call it, a procedure that results in the death of a living human being – whether at the beginning or end of life – is not health care.

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