The U.S. Catholic Conference seeks to make a positive contribution to the important ongoing national debate about the reform of the health care system in the United States. The Catholic bishops speak as pastors concerned for the health and dignity of the women, men, and children who suffer as a result of inaccessible health care. We speak as religious leaders deeply concerned that reforms proposed for the health care system in this country promote and protect the dignity and sanctity of human life and the human community. We speak as leaders of a faith community deeply involved in providing quality health care in hospitals, nursing homes, home health agencies, and through Catholic Charities agencies and parish-based ministries across the country.
The bishops also come to this national debate as citizens who support the responsibility of government to assure the health and welfare of the people of this nation in partnership with individuals, families, and a wide variety of providers and payors of health care. The U.S. Catholic Conference hope to be part of a growing broad, bi-partisan, constructive debate about how we as a nation should address the problems of limited access, rising costs, and deteriorating quality in many areas of today's health care system.
Health care is not a new concern for the Catholic community. The church has been involved in the delivery of health care services since the early pioneer says of this nation. Those early services have grown to make Catholic-sponsored health care facilities the largest network of non-profit hospitals and nursing homes in the U.S., serving about forty million Americans in a single year. In our parishes and schools, our shelters and clinics, we see the consequences of failed and confused policy — the families without insurance, the sick without options, the children without care.
Health care reform is not a new issue for the U.S. Bishops' Conference. In our 1981 pastoral letter Health and Health Care, the bishops called for an adequately funded national health insurance program for all Americans: "Following on these principles and on our belief in health care as a basic human right, we call for the development of a national health insurance program. It is the responsibility of the federal government to establish a comprehensive health care system that will ensure a basic level of health care for all Americans. The federal government should also ensure adequate funding for this basic level of care through a national health insurance program."
This public position is not based in some political theory, but is rooted deeply in the Judeo-Christian belief that every human person is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). As such, every person possesses an inherent dignity that must be deeply respected, and every person has the right and the responsibility to realize the fullness of that dignity.
Human life and human dignity also give rise to basic human rights, among which is the right to health care. The bishops explained in our 1981 pastoral letter: "Every person has a basic right to adequate health care. This right flows from the sanctity of human life and the dignity that belong to all human persons, who are made in the image of God. It implies that access to health care which is necessary and suitable for the proper development and maintenance of life must be provided for all people, regardless of economic, social or legal status."
In circumstances where 30 to 40 million Americans are without health coverage, where rising costs threaten the coverage of tens of millions more, where infant mortality remains shockingly high, and where millions of children are without basic health care, the right to health care and the responsibilities of society to ensure that care are in serious disarray.
Our faith and our understanding of social justice also tell us that "human dignity can be realized and protected only in community." (Economic Justice for All, No. 14) Our understanding of basic human rights is rooted in a view of the person as not only sacred, but social. How society is organized — in economics, politics, and health care — directly enhances or assaults human life and human dignity. When the health care system leaves so many people uncared for — affecting human life itself — then this system is in need of serious and comprehensive reform.
We also bring to the question of health care reform a special concern for the poor and vulnerable, rooted in the proclamations of the Hebrew prophets, in the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth, and in the teaching of our Church.. It is God's own poor who suffer most acutely from the faults and failings of the health care system. It is their pain and suffering, their poor health and sickness, that sharpens our resolve to participate in the call for genuine reform now.
Applying this experience and policy to the current debate, the USCC supports national health care reform which will establish a comprehensive health care system that will ensure a decent level of health care for all Americans without regard to their ability to pay. This will require strong steps that, in combination, address the questions of universal coverage, cost containment, and quality assurance. This will also require concerted action by federal and other levels of government and by providers and consumers of health care.
On this basis, we are prepared to continue to work for reform of the U.S. health care system. . . . In short we seek national health care reform founded on respect for human life and human dignity, that assures quality and affordable health care for all Americans. We look forward to working with others in shaping a policy best suited to these purposes.
We hope our national leaders will look beyond political and ideological differences and the pleadings of the many and diverse interest groups in health care to fashion a comprehensive response which unites our nation in a new commitment to serve the common good by effectively meeting the health care needs of our people, especially the poor and vulnerable. This is a major political task, a significant policy challenge, and a moral imperative.