Final Stretch for Health-Care Legislation?

Catholics and pro-lifers are still fighting certain provisions in the emerging health-care reform bill.

WASHINGTON — Catholic and pro-life groups are pushing to keep Congress from passing a final health-care bill that includes federal taxpayer funding for elective abortions and other provisions that run counter to moral teachings.

The primary focus of the effort is a small group of pro-life Democrats, led by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., who worked to include language in the House-passed version of the health-care overhaul bill that comprehensively blocked federal tax funding for elective abortions.

Pro-life advocates have been working to retain the votes of Stupak and his allies, who have been under pressure from Democratic leaders in Congress and the White House to support a Senate-passed version of the bill that would allow national funding of abortions.

Ongoing closed-door negotiations between congressional Democrats and members of President Obama’s administration have been melding the two bills.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops allied with Stupak and other pro-life Democrats to get his abortion-funding ban included in the House bill. The bishops asked parishioners nationwide Jan. 17 to contact their members of Congress on abortion and other controversial health-care provisions.

“We hope that the language [barring taxpayer funding of] abortion in the House bill will be in the final bill, and we’re pushing for that,” said Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities.

A key ally for the bishops’ conference has been the National Right to Life Committee, which has been working to educate members of Congress on abortion funding in the health-care bills.

The effectiveness of that effort, however, is far secondary to the impact that pro-life voters can have on their congressional representatives, according to Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the pro-life group.

“There will be promises and threats made” to pro-life Democrats by leaders in Congress, Johnson said. “But what’s most important is what [members of Congress] hear from their constituents.”

Among the critical pro-life House Democrats facing pressure to support a bill with abortion funding are Jason Altmire, Kathy Dahlkemper, Mike Doyle and John Murtha of Pennsylvania; Tim Ryan, John Boccieri, Steve Driehaus, Marcy Kaptur, Zack Space and Charlie Wilson of Ohio; and Joe Donnelly, Brad Ellsworth and Baron Hill of Indiana.

Other Moral Threats Remain

The health bills include numerous other provisions that have raised concerns among Catholic leaders and led some to urge defeat of the bill, regardless of the final abortion language.

John Brehany, executive director of the Catholic Medical Association, said his group shares the concerns of many other physicians that the bill will vastly expand the intrusion of federal officials into health care while setting insurers up in a “privileged position.”

“We need to put people in charge of their own resources and their own health care” instead of third-party payers, Brehany said.

New provisions in the health bills are expected to increase care denials. One measure would penalize all physicians among the top 10% of all Medicare reimbursements, regardless of the number of seriously ill patients they treat.

“You’ll have a race to get under that line, so you’ll have physicians denying [needed] care,” said Brehany.

The vastly increased federal role over all health care included in the bills also violates the central Catholic social teaching of subsidiarity, which opposes centralizing authority when lower levels of government can perform that function, said Stephen Krason, president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.

An expanded federal role, including the creation of government panels to examine the cost-effectiveness of various treatments, is likely to lead to the same cost-based government rationing of care that has occurred in other centralized health-care systems in Europe, Krason said.

Outcome Remains Uncertain

Another concern for Catholic leaders is that the health-care legislation also lacks any protections for Catholic employers who refuse to provide insurance coverage of morally objectionable health services, such as contraceptives, Doerflinger said. Already, some Catholic employers have had to drop their employees’ drug coverage because some states have required such plans to include contraceptive and abortifacient drugs.

Democratic leaders planned to push for final passage of a bill in late January or February.

Although potential opposition by the group of pro-life Democrats in the House is one of the possible roadblocks to passage, the bill also would fail if just one Senate Democrat opposed it.

Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., who has generally been pro-life, voted for the Senate version of the bill despite its inclusion of language to allow elective abortion funding. However, Nelson has said he wants to “work for better language,” Johnson said, and added, “The outcome is in doubt, and the perception of inevitability [that a bill will pass] is being created by the White House.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., told McClatchy News Service Dec. 23 that the compromise is “only an ‘accounting procedure’ that will do nothing to restrict [abortion] coverage.”

Pro-lifers’ hopes were boosted, however, with the Jan. 19 election of Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, who has said he would provide the decisive Senate vote against the bill.

Rich Daly writes

from Washington.