Revised Senate Health Care Reform Bill Still “Unacceptable,” Says U.S. Bishops Chairman

WASHINGTON—Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, Chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, reacted strongly to the revised Senate health reform bill, the “Better Care Reconciliation Act” (BCRA).

“The USCCB is reviewing carefully the health care bill introduced by Senate leadership earlier today. On an initial read, we do not see enough improvement to change our assessment that the proposal is unacceptable. We recognize the incremental improvement in funding the fight against opioid addiction, for instance, but more is needed to honor our moral obligation to our brothers and sisters living in poverty and to ensure that essential protections for the unborn remain in the bill.”

In an earlier letter concerning the draft of the BCRA that was introduced in draft format on June 22, 2017, Bishop Dewane had warned that, “[t]he BCRA’s restructuring of Medicaid will adversely impact those already in deep health poverty. At a time when tax cuts that would seem to benefit the wealthy and increases in other areas of federal spending, such as defense, are being contemplated, placing a ‘per capita cap’ on medical coverage for the poor is unconscionable.”

The full letter from June 27 can be found at: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/health-care/upload/senate-discussion-letter-health-care-reform-2017-06-27.pdf

U.S. Bishops Chairman Calls Senate To “Reject Changes” To Social Safety Net

WASHINGTON—Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, Chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, has provided a more detailed critique of the Senate “discussion draft” health care bill, dubbed the “Better Care Reconciliation Act” (BCRA).

“Removing vital coverage for those most in need is not the answer to our nation’s health care problems, and doing so will not help us build toward the common good,” said Bishop Dewane. “For the sake of persons living on the margins of our health care system, we call on the Senate to reject changes intended to fundamentally alter the social safety net for millions of people.”

The BCRA was introduced in discussion draft format on June 22, 2017, and is the Senate’s working heath care proposal. Bishop Dewane again highlighted the need for lawmakers to withhold support for provisions that would harm poor and vulnerable people, including changes to Medicaid, in the June 27 letter. He also stressed the need for protections for the unborn in the bill, indicating that “[s]afeguards pertaining to the use of tax credits for plans that include abortion face steep challenges,” and that the BCRA “needs to be strengthened to fully apply the longstanding and widely-supported Hyde amendment protections.”  Bishop Dewane also noted that coverage for immigrants and conscience protections were lacking in the BCRA.

“The BCRA’s restructuring of Medicaid will adversely impact those already in deep health poverty,” warned Bishop Dewane. “At a time when tax cuts that would seem to benefit the wealthy and increases in other areas of federal spending, such as defense, are being contemplated, placing a ‘per capita cap’ on medical coverage for the poor is unconscionable.”

The full letter can be found at: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/health-care/upload/senate-discussion-letter-health-care-reform-2017-06-27.pdf

U.S. Bishops Chairman Reacts To Draft Senate Health Care Bill

WASHINGTON—After the U.S. Senate introduced a “discussion draft” of its health care bill, Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, Chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, highlighted certain positive elements in the bill, but reiterated the need for Senators to remove unacceptable flaws in the legislation that harm those most in need.

The full statement follows:

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is examining very closely the new Senate “discussion draft” introduced today and will provide more detailed comments soon.

It must be made clear now, however, that this proposal retains many of the fundamental defects of the House of Representatives-passed health care legislation, and even further compounds them. It is precisely the detrimental impact on the poor and vulnerable that makes the Senate draft unacceptable as written.

An acceptable health care system provides access to all, regardless of their means, and at all stages of life. Such a health care system must protect conscience rights, as well as extend to immigrant families.

The Bishops value language in the legislation recognizing that abortion is not health care by attempting to prohibit the use of taxpayer funds to pay for abortion or plans that cover it. While questions remain about the provisions and whether they will remain in the final bill, if retained and effective this would correct a flaw in the Affordable Care Act by fully applying the longstanding and widely-supported Hyde amendment protections. Full Hyde protections are essential and must be included in the final bill.

However, the discussion draft introduced today retains a “per-capita cap” on Medicaid funding, and then connects yearly increases to formulas that would provide even less to those in need than the House bill. These changes will wreak havoc on low-income families and struggling communities, and must not be supported.

Efforts by the Senate to provide stronger support for those living at and above the poverty line are a positive step forward. However, as is, the discussion draft stands to cause disturbing damage to the human beings served by the social safety net.

The USCCB has also stressed the need to improve real access for immigrants in health care policy, and this bill does not move the nation toward this goal. It fails, as well, to put in place conscience protections for all those involved in the health care system, protections which are needed more than ever in our country’s health policy. The Senate should now act to make changes to the draft that will protect those persons on the peripheries of our health care system. We look forward to the process to improve this discussion draft that surely must take place in the days ahead.

When is a Chicken Sandwich More than a Chicken Sandwich?

Let me say at the outset that I have never been to a Chick-Fil-A.  And, let me say at the outset that I am convinced we need fewer fast food restaurants, not more.  (Especially because I find myself eating at them far too often.)  And, let me say at the outset that I do not share a Christian fundamentalist world view.  And, let me also say at the outset I can understand the perceptions of many people who hold a variety of opinions on  contentious  issues that cause tremendous divide in our country and elsewhere.  It is far from settled, and like so many things we witness in American politics these days, there are strong numbers of people on both sides of this debate, which means a political solution is not likely any time soon.  There will continue to be states that approve gay marriage and civil unions, and there will continue to be states that enshrine in their constitutions and law the view that marriage is limited as a legal contract between a man and a woman.

It is also easy to see why certain issues raise the anger of people.  Concerning the issue of gay marriage, there are those who see the prohibition of gay marriage in terms of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s in particular, and hold these beliefs quite strongly.  There are others who believe the Bible, or the Koran, or their own philosophy about marriage limits its definition to a relationship between a man and a woman.

The question the Chick-Fil-A decision raises concern more than the beliefs of a CEO about gay marriage.  It seems that more fundamentally this issue, and the question of the Health and Human Services mandate about contraception coverage in the new health care law, is a question about the role of religious beliefs in the public square.

A little history is important here.  Consider the following quote below from the Library of Congress website.

Many of the British North American colonies that eventually formed the United States of America were settled in the seventeenth century by men and women, who, in the face of European persecution, refused to compromise passionately held religious convictions and fled Europe. The New England colonies, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland were conceived and established “as plantations of religion.” Some settlers who arrived in these areas came for secular motives–“to catch fish” as one New Englander put it–but the great majority left Europe to worship God in the way they believed to be correct. They enthusiastically supported the efforts of their leaders to create “a city on a hill” or a “holy experiment,” whose success would prove that God’s plan for his churches could be successfully realized in the American wilderness. Even colonies like Virginia, which were planned as commercial ventures, were led by entrepreneurs who considered themselves “militant Protestants” and who worked diligently to promote the prosperity of the church.

Important then, to the people who settled here, was a protection of beliefs, a protection of people to hold certain beliefs without fear of reprisal from the government.  Put a different way, the role of many protections enshrined in the Bill of Rights, is not to protect the government from the individual, but to protect the individual from the government.  Because the experience of the early colonists was to escape persecution, it was important to them that minority views and positions be protected from government power.  While I cannot speak for other states, in Vermont the concern about freedom of speech was so strong that legislators were immune from any action for words they spoke in the legislature.  (Article 14 of the Vermont Constitution:  The freedom of deliberation, speech, and debate, in the Legislature, is so essential to the rights of the people, that it cannot be the foundation of any accusation or prosecution, action or complaint, in any other court or place whatsoever.)

Of course, putting this in writing and acting upon it are two different things.  It is clear the colonists were not always tolerant of other positions.  But, the fundamental protections sought by holders of minority opinions enjoy a long history of being upheld in the United States.  In fact, significant protection is afforded religious institutions, and individuals who belong to them, the freedom to practice their faith.  The courts have protected this right time and again.  Whether it is the right of students in a public school to protest by wearing armbands, the right of parents to choose a Catholic school for their children, or the right of members of the Westboro Baptist Church to protest at funerals, the fundamental right is clear.

One could make the case this was accepted until such time that the United States became a country of greater diversity.  When the population was a essential Judeo-Christian, the question of religion was easier to understand.  As people of other traditions and faiths, such as Muslims, Buddhists, and Jews arrived in the United States, they forced the question of religious and political tolerance.  With the arrival of the Enlightenment, and the increased acceptance of reason alone to answer questions once left to religion, there were also those who accepted no religion at all.

But a case could be made that in an age where diversity is encouraged, it is a limited diversity.  The portrayal of people of faith is always the extreme.  Radical Muslims, Christian fundamentalists, or religious terrorists are often the way people of faith are portrayed.  I remember talking to the US Bishops Spokeswoman on Pro-Life issues a number of years ago, when Eric Rudolph blew up abortion clinics.  She was scheduled to appear on national network news programs, in particular to stress the Catholic Church, while opposed to abortion, did not support violence against clinics, or the individuals who worked there, or sought services there.  However, before she was to appear, more than one network cancelled her appearance because they had found a fringe Christian who supported the bombings.

At the heart of the debate, I believe, are fears on both sides.  People of faith, are becoming more and more concerned about the prevalence of the view that religion is only a private matter, and that expression of Christian beliefs is only appropriate if they are kept to oneself.  This is not simply the question about the views of the CEO of a fast food company.  It is the view that certain religious beliefs, if held, exclude a business from locating in a particular area.  For those who decry the beliefs of the CEO and argue the appropriateness of statements by certain political leaders that limit its location in certain areas of the country, this is a logical extension of a belief, as they see it, that opposing gay marriage is standing against bigotry and is then to be challenged.  They are quick to point out the issue is no different than the opposition to interracial marriage.

But those politicians who are speaking out against Chick-Fil-A on the basis of the beliefs of the CEO, and are stating they will use the government to prevent the location of Chick-Fil-A in certain areas, tread a very dangerous path.  It is not that much different than the dangerous path tread by the supporters of Arizona’s immigration law, who believe the way a person looks is grounds to stop and ask for documentation.  That rather than “innocent until proven guilty” there is an increasing belief that one must now prove their innocence.

The support of free speech cannot be selective.  I cannot support free speech only in instances when I agree with the speech being expressed.  Unless there is evidence that Chick-Fil-A broke the law, then the views of the CEO, whether supported or reviled, cannot be the grounds to keep a business from locating in a particular area.  I suspect the reason that some politicians backed off from their original statements was because their legal counsel warned them about first amendment issues.

The point seems to be that we are not comfortable that we cannot force those to accept beliefs that appear so clear to us.  To that end, people on both sides of this issue (and others divisive issues) are angered as much by the lack of control over another’s beliefs as they are about the specifics of an issue.  A reasonable argument could be made the decline of religious practice in areas like Europe (and North America) has as much to do with the unhealthy combination of religious and secular power as it does with specific beliefs and dogma.  But those who seek to be “thought police” run the same risk.

The frustration of this inability to control is evident in just about every single issue of importance.  This evidence of this is everywhere.  There are “good PACS” and bad PACS.  There are people who donate large sums of money to causes that are good and those who are bad.  But for the person of very strong beliefs, the irony is that those on the far right and the far left, the liberal and the conservative, are often persons who have the same personality, one that finds it hard to admit there is grey in the world, and that not all things are black and white.  This is true not only of those who hold traditional beliefs, but also of those who argue against traditional religious beliefs.  The fundamental issue is not a belief, but is becoming increasingly a question of winning and losing.

It is hard to know how many people who stood in lines at Chick-Fil-A did so based upon religious conviction, and those who did so based upon the overreach of government concerning the first amendment, and those who did so simply because they were curious.  It will be equally hard to know if the people who attend the Chick-Fil-A Kiss-In, are there based on conviction, a belief that certain ideas are simply too dangerous to hold, or they are simply curious.  Individuals are right to debate (even very passionately) about controversial topics.  But the right to hold beliefs should be held sacred, and great care needs to be taken to protect the right of people to hold them.  (A word that is not used lightly.)

So, if the issue is control, perhaps the real discomfort is that we will not find consensus on most issues as long as people on both sides of any question are adamant their view must prevail.  The messy part of democracy is that there are issues I support that will become law and there are issues I do not support that will become law, and vice-versa.  But what the founders recognized as essential, the ability of citizens to practice religion or not, must remain sacred.