By Nancy Frazier O’Brien
WASHINGTON (CNS) — Echoing an earlier letter to members of Congress from three bishops, officials of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops expressed disappointment Oct. 14 that the Senate Finance Committee passed its version of health reform legislation without resolving problems related to abortion funding, conscience rights, affordability and legal immigrants.
The health reform plan proposed by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., called America’s Healthy Future Act of 2009, passed the Finance Committee Oct. 13 in a 14-9 vote, becoming the fifth version to be approved by a congressional committee this year.
The USCCB officials repeated the bishops’ statement in an Oct. 8 letter that they would be forced to oppose the final health care reform bill if it does not resolve problems in several key areas.
Specifically, they all said the final plan must include policies against abortion funding and in support of conscience rights; make health care “affordable and available to the poor and vulnerable”; and meet the needs of legal immigrants and their families.
The letter was signed by Bishop William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia and Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City, who chair the USCCB committees on Domestic Justice and Human Development, Pro-Life Activities and Migration, respectively.
Kathy Saile, director of the USCCB Office of Domestic Social Development, said after the committee vote that she remained hopeful that “problematic provisions” in the various health reform proposals, particularly the Baucus bill, “can be worked out.”
“But time is running short and if the provisions are not fixed, the bishops have been clear that they will have no choice but to oppose a final bill,” she added.
“The stated purpose of pursuing health care reform was to provide those without health care coverage access to quality and affordable health care,” Saile said. “There is real doubt that this bill will achieve that goal.”
Kevin Appleby, USCCB director of migration and refugee policy, said the Baucus bill also “falls well short” of the stated goal of health reform to “reduce significantly the number of uninsured.”
“As passed out of the Finance Committee, millions of legal immigrants and their families would be left outside the system, dependent on emergency rooms for their primary care,” he added.
Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the USCCB Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, said none of the committee-passed health reform plans “is consistent with long-standing and widely supported federal policies on abortion and conscience rights.”
“Contrary to recent misleading comments from some sources, this (Baucus bill) and other health care reform bills appropriate their own funds outside the scope of the annual Labor/HHS appropriations bills, and so are not covered by the Hyde amendment that prevents those bills from funding abortion coverage,” he added. “This legislation needs its own provision against such funding.”
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said at press briefings Oct. 7 and 9 that “there’s a law that precludes the use of federal funds for abortion that isn’t going to be changed in these health care bills.”
Although he did not name it, Gibbs apparently was referring to the Hyde amendment. Enacted into law in various forms since 1976 as an amendment to appropriations bills for the Department of Health and Human Services, it prohibits federal funding of abortions except in cases of rape, incest and danger to the mother’s life.
Asked specifically about the Hyde amendment, Gibbs said, “Again, I think that law is exceedingly clear.”
But the Hyde amendment must be passed each year and does not cover spending outside the purview of HHS. Pro-life organizations and individuals have said that, without specific wording prohibiting it, health care legislation could open the door to use of taxpayer money for abortions.
FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, said that although the health reform bills currently before Congress “don’t require federal money to be used for supporting abortion coverage,” they “would allow a new ‘public’ insurance plan to cover abortions, despite language added to the House bill that technically forbids using public funds to pay for them.”
In the House, an amendment introduced by Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., and approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee includes a ban on the use of public money to pay for abortions, except in cases of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother.
“That would still allow the public plan to cover all abortions, so long as the plans took in enough private money in the form of premiums paid by individuals or their employers,” said FactCheck.org. “The Capps language also would allow private plans purchased with federal subsidies … to cover abortion.”
Praising the Senate Finance Committee’s action Oct. 13, President Barack Obama made no reference to abortion but said there are “still significant details and disagreements to be worked out over the next several weeks.”
“We are now closer than ever before to passing health reform,” Obama added. “But we’re not there yet. … Now is not the time to offer ourselves congratulations. Now is the time to dig in and work even harder to get this done.”
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