Debate on Healthcare Reform Unfolds
by Daniel Peterson, Special to The Catholic Advocate

Catholic Concerns Focus on Access Rights
Whither Catholic healthcare and the urgent call for universal coverage in the age of soaring federal budget deficits, global economic meltdowns and the desperate medical needs of those who are uninsured?

The Catholic Church has been dedicated to the healing and healthcare ministry since the days of Jesus. In the United States, one out of every six patients is treated in a Catholic facility. Catholic healthcare is based on the principle that every person is created in the image and likeness of God and has an inalienable dignity. Catholic teaching states that life-from conception until natural death-is sacred and should be protected.

Experts inside and outside of the healthcare delivery system have concluded there is a pressing need for comprehensive healthcare reform. While the immediate focus is on hospitals and individual medical bills, healthcare reform is an issue that extends to all sectors of U.S. economy. For example, healthcare "legacy costs" are a major component of the crushing debt burden currently being shouldered by U.S. car builders and steel producers- costs that hinder their ability to be competitive in a fast-moving global economy.

Universal access to healthcare is a basic human right, according to Catholic social teaching. This teaching is rooted in the recognition of the intrinsic dignity of every human being, especially for the most-vulnerable members of society-the young, the elderly, the disabled, the impoverished and the dying. As such, universal access rights represent a chief concern for Catholic healthcare leaders; whether this access can be attained remains an open question.
"Universal access to quality healthcare is a fundamental right," Father Joe Kukura, president of the Catholic HealthCare Partnership of New Jersey, Princeton, declared.

"It's hard to realize our own dignity if we don't have healthcare," said Jeff Tieman, senior director, health reform initiatives, at the Catholic Health Association in Washington, D.C.

Universal access means coverage for all people, regardless of insurance or citizenship status, Tieman said. "When we say 'everyone' we mean everyone," he said. "Every person should be able to access healthcare."

The Obama administration, as part of its budget proposals, has outlined a reform plan that claims to reduce healthcare costs for individuals who already have insurance and employers who provide it, as well as improve access for those without it. The federal administration is proposing $634 billion for this reform over the next 10 years. However, political arguments over the price tag and how to pay for it are just beginning to unfold.

Healthcare reform has been on the national radar screen since the mid-1990s, but little has been accomplished even as the number of uninsured citizens soars. It's estimated that 46 million Americans, including 9 million children, are uninsured.

As for the prospects of achieving comprehensive healthcare reform this year, Fr. Kukura and Tieman expressed a cautious optimism, tempered by the political stalemates of recent years. They were leery of making specific predictions, considering the size and complexity of the issue.

Both sources did say healthcare reform should be based on the absolute and fundamental value of human life. "This is a value-driven reform," Tieman pointed out. "We hope to see healthcare reform reflect the vision of Catholic healthcare: human dignity, common good, concern for poor and vulnerable, stewardship and pluralism."

Speaking last year at a healthcare forum at the College of Saint Elizabeth, Morristown, Fr. Kukura described himself as a "pastoral ethicist" (see The Catholic Advocate, May 7, 2008). "I believe in the Catholic ethical perspectives," Fr. Kukura said at the forum.

Catholic healing tradition maintains that to be complete and integrated, one must prosper physically and spiritually. A hallmark of Catholic healthcare is the concern for holistic development. "Catholic hospitals work to promote the health of mind, body and spirit," Tieman said.

The conversation on how to provide universal coverage is taking place against the backdrop of mounting cost concerns. According to a 2000 World Health Report on healthcare systems conducted by the World Health Organization, cost of healthcare in the United States ranks among the highest in the world, whereas the quality ranks 37th out of 190 developed and developing countries.

The National Center for Health Statistics, Hyattsville, MD, estimates the United States spends twice as much on healthcare per capita ($7,129) than any other country and spending continues to increase. In 2005, the national healthcare expenditures totaled $2 trillion. The payment of healthcare expenditures included private health insurance, 36 percent; the federal government, 35 percent, state and local governments, 11 percent; and out-of-pocket payouts, 15 percent.

"The Catholic Church proclaims that human life is sacred and that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society," according to a statement by the Washington D.C.-based United States Conference of Catholics Bishops (USCCB). "This belief is the foundation of all the principles of our social teaching. We believe that every person is precious, that people are more important than things, and that the measure of every institution is whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person."

The USCCB, in its document "Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions," states: "We are one human family whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences. We are our brothers' and sisters' keepers, wherever they may be."

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