The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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October 26, 2001 Issue
Eye on the Capitol

'Trickle down' health care benefits harm our society

In order to provide for the common good, we must expand health care system

By Kathy Markeland

Recent news accounts have discussed the phenomenon of doctors who break away from the constraints of managed care to start their own health care groups. Patients, who pay an annual "special fee" to their physician, have the opportunity to enjoy a more personal, attentive relationship with their doctor.

Some find this scandalous; others find it appealing. My first reaction was indignation. Upon further reflection I recognized that this is exactly the type of health care system that we have right now.

There are a multitude of insurance plans available that either cover or don't cover certain treatments. Those who can afford to pay more receive better service. Some of us are covered by employer sponsored health insurance; others by government sponsored plans, others by independently purchased insurance. Still others, almost 40 million of us across the country, aren't covered at all.

We have a market driven health care system. Some argue that this market-based approach is the engine that drives medical advances in our country. Advances in pharmaceuticals and specialized treatments would not occur if the health care industry could not derive financial benefit from those advances.

However, the difficulty we face is that not only are some individuals able to access certain services that others are not, but the investment of limited private and public research dollars in health care can be directed to treatments that may promise a more lucrative return for investors.

This "skewing" of scarce health care resources is one of the ethical and moral issues that confronts us as we face advances in stem cell research, the human genome project and other research projects.

While expenditures for research and development and expenditures for health care coverage are not mutually exclusive, we must question the influence private interests and investments exert on the types of medical concerns that are explored and the cost of those new developments relative to the cost of making existing treatments available to those who need them.

The Catechism teaches us that the common good concerns the life of all. One critical feature of the common good is the accessibility to each of "what is needed to lead a truly human life: food, clothing, health, work, education and culture, suitable information, the right to establish a family, and so on" (1908).

Health care is not merely a commodity to be bought and sold; it is a public good that is fundamentally linked to the dignity of the community.

While a certain balance between advancement in medicine and distribution of those advances is necessary, Catholic social teaching calls us to a preferential option for the poor that cannot be satisfied with promises of medical benefits down the road while current, known treatments are not available for all.

Serving the common good means that we affirm the inherent dignity of each individual by providing access to those things necessary to lead a truly human life. Serving the common good means acting justly. The Scriptures tell us to "let justice surge like water, and goodness like an unfailing stream." We cannot be satisfied with health care benefits that "trickle down."

(Markeland is associate director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the civil arm of the state's five diocesan bishops.)

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