Monday, October 12, 2020

Healthy Healthcare

Understanding Catholic criteria for healthcare reform


Can you believe we have already talked about five touchy topics as the presidential election looms large before us? Those topics were: (1) abortion and prolife, (2) racism, (3) marriage and the LGBTQ community, (4) immigration, and (5) the environment. In each homily I tried to advance the argument not by picking a political party or siding with a certain candidate, but by looking at the subject more spiritually, gazing through the eyes of faith. How should Catholic Christians consider these hot-button issues? In this sixth homily we turn our attention to the reform of healthcare.

Let me start with the story about the founding of a local Catholic hospital here in Fort Smith by the Sisters of Mercy. In 1853, Sr. Mary Theresa Farrell – by the way her bronze statue stands right outside our church in Gateway Park – led three other sisters from Ireland up the Arkansas River by steamboat. They immediately undertook the task of educating the poor and caring for the sick, a school and a hospital. During the Civil War, they did not ask if a sick soldier was from the North or from the South of the Mason Dixon Line, but cared for all regardless of uniform. The sisters saluted the wearer, not the uniform.

In 1905, that rich heritage of healthcare blossomed when they opened St. Edward Infirmary. But before they could break ground, they needed the blessing of the bishop. So, they promised him they would name the hospital for him if he gave them permission. Bishop Edward Fitzgerald was more than happy to oblige, and hence it was called St. Edward Hospital. They say it’s better to be lucky than good, but when you are an Irish nun, you’re both. St. Edward’s Hospital, like all Catholic hospitals, embodied everything that should be included in truly healthy healthcare.

You might remember in 2017 the United States Congress was debating either curtailing or entirely canceling the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as “Obamacare.” The Catholic bishops of our country wrote a letter to both the Senate and the House of Representatives outlining five principles that our elected officials should bear in mind and put into practice in order to reform healthcare. These five principles are applied robustly in Catholic hospitals, and we pray for their fuller implementation in healthcare throughout our country. What are these five principles of healthcare reform?

First, government sponsored healthcare should “respect human life and dignity.” The bishops state categorically: “The Bishops of the United States continue to reject the inclusion of abortion as part of a national healthcare benefit.” In other words, our tax dollars should not be used to fund abortions. Why not? Well, if public funds are funneled to abortions, then the taxpayer becomes “materially complicit” in the abortion, because we provide the material means to make the abortions possible. Now, the individual taxpayer may not be guilty of a grave sin, as long as he or she does not directly intend to pay taxes to provide abortions. Nonetheless, our tax dollars have created what the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls “structures of sin” that “lead their victims to do evil in their own turn” (Catechism, 1369). Put simply, the Catholic bishops are strongly opposed to healthcare that creates “structures of sin” that cause abortions.

The second principle the bishops urge is “honoring conscience rights.” They explain further: “Congress should expressly provide conscience protections as part of any healthcare plan for those who participate in the delivery or coverage of healthcare services.” Do you recall the “Hippocratic Oath” doctors take upon graduating from medical school? Part of that oath reads: “I will do no harm or injustice to [my patients]. Neither will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course. Similarly, I will not give to a woman a pessary to cause abortion.” And now you know what a “pessary” is: it causes an abortion. The Hippocratic Oath was intended to strengthen a doctor’s conscience when they provided healthcare. Indeed, it was an oath they made to God. The U.S. bishops are asking Congress not to deaden that conscience but rather to defend it.

The third principle is “accessibility,” which the bishops articulate saying: “Healthcare is not a privilege, but a right and a requirement to protect the life and dignity of every person.” The bishops also add: “We have a responsibility to ensure that no one is left without the ability to see a doctor or get emergency care when needed.” This third principle reminds me of those courageous and self-sacrificing Sisters of Mercy who provided healthcare to all patients, Union soldiers as well as Confederate soldiers. Notice the sisters did not care what side of the border a patient was from in the Civil War – even though we were briefly two different countries: the United States of America and the Confederate States of America, which existed from 1861 to 1863. Likewise, the bishops beseech Congress to pass healthcare reform that allows hospitals and doctors to heal everyone without exception. Accessible means available to all.

The bishops describe the fourth principle as “affordability.” They write: “Many lower income families simply lack the resources to meet their healthcare expenses.” They continue: “For these families, substantial premiums and cost-sharing charges can serve as barriers to obtaining coverage or seeing a doctor.” This fourth principle of “affordability” sounds very similar to the previous principle of “accessibility” but they are distinct. Accessibility addresses discrimination, while affordability addresses destitution. The bishops are only asking us to follow the healing example of Jesus himself. In the gospel of Luke – who, by the way, was himself a physician – we read: “All those who had any that were sick with various diseases brought them to him; and he laid his hands on every one of them and healed them” (Lk. 4:40). Jesus healing ministry was always “accessible” and “affordable” and he is therefore the model of all healthy healthcare.

The fifth principle is perhaps the loftiest goal of all, but still necessary, namely, healthcare should be “comprehensive and high quality.” Our Catholic prelates persist: “Healthcare is much more than mere insurance.” They continue: “Limited access to minimal healthcare, particularly for poor and vulnerable people, including the undocumented, is not enough.” What does that mean? We are blessed to have several doctors here at Immaculate Conception Church. A couple of times when I was sick, they happily healed me. Several times at Mass, people have passed out (I think the deacons were preaching) and the doctors sprang into action, jumping over pews to get to the person first. Before the pandemic, we went to Honduras on mission trips, and our doctors gladly gave of their time, talent and treasure to heal the sick. I am so proud of all our doctors who provide “maximal” healthcare, not "minimal."

My friends, healthcare reform is not a simple issue with easy answers. But the Sisters of Mercy sure made it look easy when they arrived in Fort Smith over 150 years ago and cared for the sick. Those Sisters’ healthcare was truly “healthy” because it met all five principles the bishops enunciated: (1) they respected human life and dignity, (2) they honored the rights of conscience, (3) their care was accessible, (4) their care was affordable, and (5) their care was comprehensive and high quality. The bishops conclude their letter saying: “Our aim and our prayer is that this perspective will help make clear the likely impacts of the decisions you are about to debate in Congress.” And as I conclude this homily, it is my aim and my prayer that this homily will help make clear the likely impact of your vote this November.

Praised be Jesus Christ!


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