Washington — At a press conference on June 23, President Obama insisted that comprehensive health-care reform is “not a luxury, but a necessity.” The president has said that he wants Congress to deliver health-care reform legislation to him by October.
The Senate Finance Committee, charged with finalizing pending health-care reform legislation, is working to meet the president’s deadline. But, according to Erin Shields, press secretary to committee chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., “No dates have been set, and no policies have been finalized.” On June 25, the finance committee issued a brief statement reiterating the committee’s commitment to finding “workable solutions” in health-care reform: “As we have been for the last several weeks, we are ... continuing our work toward a bipartisan bill that will lower costs and ensure quality, affordable care for every American.”
“This is one of those moments where the stars are aligned,” Obama said at a health-care forum held at the White House on June 24. “We’ve got insurers who are interested, doctors who are interested, nurses, patients, [the] AARP ... drug companies have said that they’d be willing to reduce the costs for seniors for prescription drugs as part of health-care reform. But we have to have the courage and the willingness to cooperate and compromise in order to make this happen.”
“The White House is clearly putting some muscle behind this, and really pushing hard for reform as soon as possible,” said Kathy Saile, director of domestic social development at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Saile said that health-care advocates are “not at all surprised that it’s taking this long” to negotiate health-care reform legislation. “It’s all so complex, and President Obama has said that he wants it to be a bipartisan effort, so it will take time to hammer out the best possible agreement,” she said. “But even though a lot of legislators have concerns or complaints about this bill, no one is walking away, which is very encouraging.”
As part of his proposal to reform health care and make it available to all Americans, including the estimated 48 million without health insurance, Obama has called for the creation of a new public plan option to compete with private health insurance plans. But this plan remains one of the most controversial issues in the debate over health-care reform. At the White House health-care forum, the president defended the new public plan option to those who are skeptical about increased government involvement in health care and private insurers’ ability to compete.
“A lot of the objection to the public option idea is not practical; it’s ideological. People don’t like the idea of government being involved,” he said. “[Y]ou’ll always hear folks say that the free market can do it better; government can’t run anything. And what I say is, well, if that’s the case, nobody is going to choose the public option. So the private insurers, who I think are very confident that they’re providing a good service and a good product to their customers, should feel confident that they can compete with just one other option.”
According to John Brehany, executive director of the Catholic Medical Association, “President Obama’s challenge is disingenuous; there is no possibility of fair competition. The government is not only not obligated to turn a profit; it can absorb staggering losses — note our current $1.8 trillion deficit. Currently, the government attempts (without success) to control the market for the populations of Medicare and Medicaid. Once they enter as a legitimate player in the broader health-care field, they can outspend and out regulate any other single player in the system.”
Dr. R. Steven White, a past president of the Catholic Medical Association, agreed with Brehany: “We have 50 years of experience with government-sponsored health programs — look at Medicare and Medicaid. The government has completely failed at controlling the cost of these programs. Once the cost becomes too high, quality in health care suffers.”
White believes that every American should have access to quality, affordable health care. “But we have not a shred of evidence that the government can deliver this,” he said. “It must be done via the free market — by giving individuals the autonomy and the assistance, if necessary, to purchase the health care they want and need.”
White hailed the Patients’ Choice Act, legislation introduced in May by a handful of Republicans in Congress which would give tax credits directly to individuals rather than to employers. This, according to sponsors, would allow people the freedom to either purchase their own private health insurance coverage or use the credit to pay for their existing employee premium.
“The only way to control the high cost of health care is to give people the power to purchase the services they need in a free market economy,” said White.
Saile of the USCCB said that while the American bishops support universal access to health care, they could not support any new plan that included publicly funded abortion or threats to conscience protection. She added that the bishops, as a whole, have not yet weighed in on whether or not a public option should be created, and they cannot comment until more specifics are known about the pending legislation.
“If the new public plan helped to meet our goal of health coverage for all Americans, and if it spread costs fairly across the spectrum and did not undermine respect for the dignity of life at all stages, I can’t see why the bishops wouldn’t support it,” said Saile.
But White and the Catholic Medical Association are concerned that the religious and moral convictions of many Americans will be ignored by those intent on creating a new public plan. He said, “It’s not at all clear that our Catholic values will be heard or respected.”
Nicole Callahan writes from
Durham, North Carolina.