Four years ago, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina, walked out of the Sistine Chapel and onto the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica as Pope Francis. In all of the excitement that took place following the new pope’s election, a friend and fellow South American cardinal, Claudio Hummes, whispered to Francis, “Don’t forget the poor.”
In the past four years — during homilies at St. Peter’s Basilica, informal gatherings around Italy and pastoral visits around the world — Pope Francis has not forgotten the words of his friend, Cardinal Hummes of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Francis’ pontificate has been molded by a desire to serve the poor.
Today, Cardinal Hummes’ supplication comes to mind today as congressional Republicans begin their overhaul of the Affordable Care Act.
So far, according to news reports, the proposed American Health Care Act does not look kindly on the poor.
On March 13, the same day Pope Francis celebrated his fourth anniversary, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office issued a report that projected, under the newly proposed health care plan, an estimated 52 million people would be uninsured by 2026. Currently, the national uninsured rate is about 28 million, roughly 9 percent, which is a historic low. The good news, in the eyes of some, is that this massive drop in health insurance coverage would cut the federal deficit by $337 billion in 10 years.
In effect, the proposed health care act does nothing to guarantee health care for Americans. Instead, it becomes just another measure to cut federal spending on what some lawmakers label as an entitlement.
Such a political maneuver does not square with Catholic social teaching or the wishes of U.S. bishops, who issued a statement March 8 calling for health care reform that honors five moral criteria:
- Respect for life and dignity: A plan that does not fund abortion coverage.
- Honoring conscience rights: A plan that does not require health care workers to offer services that violate their religious beliefs.
- Access for all: A guarantee that health care is available to all Americans, regardless of where they live or their religious, ethnic or racial background.
- Affordable: Making sure all people, regardless of income, can receive health care. (The bishops add that that they have “serious concerns” with making structural changes to Medicaid, which is a safety net for millions of poor and elderly people.)
- Comprehensive and high quality: “Health care is much more than mere insurance,” the bishops argue. It must be sufficient to “maintain and promote good health as well as treat disease and disability.”
While Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan has defended the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and labeled the GOP’s health care plan as “an act of mercy,” many health care leaders beg to differ.
Sr. Carol Keehan, president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, issued a statement March 7 opposing the proposed American Health Care Act. “This new plan does not improve the (Affordable Care Act),” said Sr. Carol. “Instead, it undermines it and leaves behind millions of people who have obtained meaningful, affordable insurance that was not possible before the ACA.”
In an effort to dismantle a health care plan that, while in need of improvement, offered substantial benefits to millions of Americans, Congress has decided to take what appears to be a brazen approach. While succeeding at political gamesmanship, lawmakers are failing their most needy constituents.
Affordable and universal health care is a “fundamental issue of human life and dignity,” according to the U.S. bishops. Like Cardinal Hummes four years ago, the bishops are whispering in the ear of Paul Ryan and other congressional leaders: Don’t forget the poor.