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Bishops: Health Care Bill Must Protect the Poor

By Julie Asher

WASHINGTON (CNS) – The U.S. bishops’ effort urging senators to protect the poor and amend the Graham-Cassidy bill, meant to replace the Affordable Care Act, may be a moot subject as opposition to the bill stiffened amid frantic rewriting to get critical senators’ votes.

Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Susan Collins of Maine said they would not vote for the bill, which would appear to doom the legislation. The bill, being considered under budget reconciliation rules, needs only a simple majority to pass. But in addition to the 48 members of the Democratic caucus lines up against it, the three GOP defections make passage unlikely before the Sept. 30 deadline.

“We urge you to think of the harm that will be caused to poor and vulnerable people and amend the legislation while retaining its positive features,” the bishops said in a Sept. 22 letter to all senators.

Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana have co-sponsored the legislation.

“Without significant improvement, this bill does not meet the moral criteria for health care reform outlined in our previous letters and must be changed,” they said. That criteria includes respect for life and dignity; honoring conscience rights; access for all; and a high-quality plan that is affordable and comprehensive.

The bishops criticized the measure’s Medicaid “per capita cap” because it puts an “insufferable burden” on poor and vulnerable Americans. They did praise the bill for correcting “a serious flaw” in the ACA by ensuring “no federal funds are used for abortion or go to plans that cover it.” They called on senators to amend the bill to address its flaws but retain the pro-life provisions.

The Graham-Cassidy bill would repeal the ACA and replace it with block grants for the states to spend as they see fit. The block grants’ size, though, would shrink over time and disappear altogether in 2027. The Senate is working under a Sept. 30 deadline to pass the bill.

The letter was signed by Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities; Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, Md., chairman of the Committee for Religious Liberty; Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Fla., chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development; and Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin, Texas, chairman of the Committee on Migration.

Action Alert to Contact Senators

The USCCB also launched an action alert (http://bit.ly/2xvbHag) urging Catholics to contact their senators to urge them “to protect health care for poor and vulnerable people.”

“The Graham-Cassidy bill includes a Medicaid ‘per capita cap’ that was part of previous bills, which have been rejected,” the bishops wrote. “The Medicaid caps will fundamentally restructure this vital program, which supports the medical needs of those most in need. Over time, these modifications will result in deep funding cuts and lost coverage for millions of people.

“The Senate should only proceed with a full report concerning just how many people will be impacted,” they said. “Our nation must not attempt to address its fiscal concerns by placing an insufferable health care burden on the backs of the poor.”

The bishops said the proposal does “correct a serious flaw” flaw in the ACA by making sure “no federal funds are used for abortion or go to plans that cover it.”

“This improvement is praiseworthy, and it is essential that any improved final bill retain these key provisions which would finally address grave moral problems in our current health care system,” they said. “We also applaud that Graham-Cassidy redirects funds from organizations that provide abortion.”
But they took the bill to task forgiving block grants to states “in place of premium tax credits, cost-sharing subsidies and the Medicaid expansion,” saying that arrangement will only harm the poor.

“While flexibility can be good at times, these block grants will result in billions of dollars in reductions for those in health care poverty,” they said. “States already face significant deficits each budget cycle, and these block grants mean dollars intended for low income individuals and families will suddenly face competition from many other state priorities.”

The country “can ill afford to put access to health care for those most in need in jeopardy this way” because, the bishops continued, “the costs to our communities, including public and private organizations at all levels, will be too high.”

“Decisions about the health of our citizens – a concern fundamental to each of us – should not be made in haste simply because an artificial deadline looms,” they said.

They told senators that “the common good should call you to come together in a bi-partisan way to pass thoughtful legislation that addresses the life, conscience, immigrant access, market stability and affordability problems that now exist.”

Earlier this year, as Senate Republicans drafted and debated an ACA repeal measure, the U.S. bishops in letters and statements repeatedly urged Congress to craft a bill meeting the moral criteria of respect for life and dignity; honoring conscience rights; access for all; and a high-quality plan that is affordable.

When the Senate failed to get enough votes to pass what was being called a “skinny” repeal to remove parts of the Affordable Care Act in the early hours of July 28, Bishop Dewane in a statement said the “task of reforming the health care system still remains.”

The nation’s health care system under the ACA “is not financially sustainable” and “lacks full Hyde protections and conscience rights,” he said at the time. He also noted the health care system “is inaccessible to many immigrants.”

The U.S. bishops have advocated for universal and affordable health care for decades and they supported the general goal of the Affordable Care Act, which was passed in 2010, but the bishops ultimately opposed the law because it expanded the federal role in abortion and failed to expand health care protections to immigrants.

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