Friday, January 8, 2010

Keeping Catholic Hospitals True to Their Identity: A Winning Health Care Proposal

A friend just got a job in a Catholic hospital. She loves the work, and I hear with delight about the employee training program and the mission of top-flight care in a Catholic setting.

She is a receptionist, and hospital leaders know values must be conveyed by all the staff, from the first person you meet to the professional staff who hold lives in their hands.

Values that emphasize the sacredness of every person, rich or poor, coming into life or leaving it, are paramount in Catholic hospitals and right now the U.S. bishops are working hard to make sure these values will still exist under health care reform.

Catholic health care encompasses more than 600 facilities; the ministry costs about $6.7 billion annually. Yet, although Catholic hospitals are a major force, their unique nature could be threatened if the health care reform bills dismiss concerns of the bishops.

The U.S. bishops do not want an expansion of abortion and urge that the policy of the Hyde Amendment be preserved. The Hyde Amendment, first passed in 1976, precludes federal money from being used to pay for elective abortions or plans which provide coverage for them. This already is policy for several major federal health programs. The underlying principle: health care reform should not force anybody to pay for another’s abortion.

The bishops want conscience protection for institutions and individuals. Among other things, they would like to see the language of the Weldon Amendment incorporated into health care reform. Weldon, passed in 2004, prevents government bodies from discriminating against hospitals and other health care providers that do not perform, refer for or pay for abortions. Health care facilities and personnel have the right to provide care according to a value system that respects each human life. Language from the Weldon Amendment is now in the House health care reform bill and needs to be retained in final legislation.

The bishops as employers are not forced by federal law to pay for health plans that cover such services as abortion and sterilization and they want to retain that right. The church does not believe these are morally acceptable and it does violence to the church to force it as an employer to pay for them. This is a matter of conscience, of being true to one’s identity.

Charity care is part of any Catholic hospital but these hospitals also have to follow sound business practices. Emergency rooms must serve both insured and uninsured. The bills before Congress preserve current law that prevents legal immigrants from accessing federal-health care programs, such as Medicaid, for five years, even though they work, pay taxes, and soon will be citizens. They also prevent undocumented persons from buying into a newly-created health-care exchange, forcing them to stay uninsured and dependent on emergency room care. This is bad public policy, since the costs of their care would be borne by taxpayers. Under these rules, a hospital is forced to serve the sick, which is good, but can’t be reimbursed by insurance because some patients are denied entry into the government health care system even when they can afford to pay for it.

Catholic Charities provides about $3.5 billion annually in services. Much of it goes to people who can’t make ends meet. The health care reform proposals are burdensome at best. A family of four earning $29,500 would have to pay four percent of its income for health insurance and would have inadequate protection on high deductibles and co-payments. That’s almost $2,000 annually. Out-of-pocket expenses for health care could be near twenty percent of their income.

My friend feels she’s glimpsing heaven, in a place that respects people, rich or poor, coming into or leaving life on earth. She is part of something important to both church and society. Millions who have been patients in Catholic hospitals can attest to that! If Congress works with the bishops to uphold this gift to our nation, everybody wins.

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