The archbishop of Washington argues the moral case for "urgently needed" health care reform in the following op-ed:
As Congress returns to work, the debate on health care reform surely will focus on the political, technical and economic repercussions of various proposals. What cannot get lost in this debate, however, are the moral implications. Health care is about life and death, who can take their children to the doctor and who cannot, who can afford decent medical coverage and who is left to fend for themselves. Because health care reform has real consequences -- literally life and death -- decisions must be evaluated through a prism of fundamental ethical principles to see how they will impact the dignity and value of each human life.
In some areas there seems to be consensus. Most people agree that it is not right that tens of millions of Americans lack basic health care coverage and many more risk losing what they have as costs rise. All of us should be able to acknowledge that a society that does not ensure basic health care for its people is failing in a fundamental way.
There also seems to be general agreement that we can do better. Our nation has the capacity and the resources to ensure that all have access to health care coverage. Arguably, we have the best health care in the world. However, it serves too few and often costs too much. We need to find practical ways to see that no one lacks access to basic health care.
As part of living out the Gospel challenge to heal, the Catholic community knows firsthand the impact of the current crisis. The Catholic Health Association alone represents hundreds of Catholic hospitals and health care systems across the United States. In fact, the nation's 600 Catholic hospitals care for one-sixth of all hospital patients in the United States. Add onto that the more than 1,000 nursing homes, neighborhood clinics and other health ministries, such as the Spanish Catholic Center's medical clinic right here in the nation's capital, as well as the outreach by thousands of parishes nationwide to those in need.
We offer a safety net for many who fall through the huge cracks of a failing health care system. The uninsured find their way to our emergency rooms, shelters and clinics where they know they will not be turned away.
We teach that health care is a basic human right, an essential safeguard of human life and dignity. Here in the Archdiocese of Washington, the Catholic community serves nearly 600,000 people in our hospitals and other health care facilities and over 120,000 persons through Catholic Charities, including its Family Centers, and even more through parishes. It is this direct, frontline experience that has guided the Church's efforts for decades to expand and improve health care coverage in our nation and our work for genuine health care reform today.
So, what are some of the basics of health care reform?
Health care reform especially needs to protect those at the beginning of life and at its end -- the most vulnerable and the voiceless. It is essential that reform include long-standing and widely supported federal restrictions on abortion funding and mandates and uphold existing conscience protections for health care providers. Abandoning current federal policies on abortion funding and conscience protection, thereby forcing people to pay for or participate in abortion would be morally reprehensible and a repudiation of the understanding of individual freedom and the rights of conscience that goes back to the American Revolution.
Universal coverage should be universal, including everyone. Health care reform cannot leave people out because of pre-existing conditions, chronic illnesses, their place of work or because they cannot afford insurance. Reform should not leave people out because of where they come from or when they arrived here.
The United Stated Conference of Catholic Bishops, following the Gospel mandate to care for the "least of these," urges us to look at health care from the bottom up. A particular gauge against which to measure true universal coverage would be how reform treats the immigrants in our midst who contribute their labor and taxes to our nation, but are at risk of being left out of health care reform.
We need also to find effective ways to bring together public, private and non-profit health care actors in ways that harness their strengths, overcome their shortcomings and, particularly with religious partners, respect their mission and identity.
Our political leadership faces both a challenge and an opportunity. We hope and we also pray that all in this debate will remember that what is really at stake are the lives, dignity and health care of all our people. Securing health care that protects the life and dignity of all is a moral imperative and an urgent national priority.
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