TOWSON – Some 150 physicians, nurses, spiritual care/chaplains and hospital leaders gathered March 12 at St. Joseph Medical Center in an effort to better understand Catholic concerns about President Obama’s health care reform legislation, especially as it relates to freedom of conscience and government funding of abortion.
The event was the third annual Symposium for Catholic Medical Professionals, titled “Health Care Reform and the Catholic Medical Professional.” It was hosted by Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien and supported by all five area Catholic hospitals.
“We continue to seek to understand the scope of this legislation (The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act), especially as it affects the lives of the most vulnerable and its impact on the conscience protections you as Catholic medical professionals hold so dear,” Archbishop O’Brien told the audience.
Anthony Picarello, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ general counsel, led the participants through the PPACA maze in a “legal analysis” of the act, which President Obama first signed into law a year ago.
While acknowledging that there is much in the bill of which the bishops approve, Picarello concluded that lingering legal and moral issues leave the U.S. bishops with little confidence that their particular concerns about such issues as abortion funding and conscience rights are adequately met.
“The point is that the lawyers don’t need to be right ‘legally’ for the bishops to be right ‘morally,’ even if the unlikely turns out to be true and abortion is never funded under the law, that funding was still ‘likely’ to a morally unacceptable degree at the time the bill passed,” Picarello said.
Other speakers were even more outspoken in their criticism. Dr. Lou Breschi, a Baltimore urologist and immediate past president of the Catholic Medical Association’s board of directors, bluntly charged that the PPACA “simply fails to respect fundamental ethical, constitutional and social principles.”
Dr. Marie Hilliard, a nationally recognized expert in healthcare regulation with an extensive professional background in medical ethics and public policy and advocacy, and in patient care as a registered nurse, warned of what she called “the steady and escalating attack on the religious liberty of health care providers.”
With the more recent rescinding by President Obama of major parts of President George W. Bush’s “Conscience Rule,” “this attack is never so evident,” she said.
“The culture of secular relativism increasingly is becoming hostile toward conscience rights and religion, especially the Roman Catholic Church, which is the largest non-governmental provider of health care in this country,” Dr. Hilliard said.
She said recent statistics demonstrate that the 561 Catholic hospitals in the United States treat over 86 million patients annually. Furthermore, their other 2,331 health care ministries care for almost 8 million persons a year.
Dr. Hilliard noted that PPACA mandates that “essential health benefits” be provided in every region of the country. As defined in the law, these benefits include provisions similar to those in the Medicaid Act, and courts have construed such Medicaid provisions to include abortion, she explained.
“Abortion fits within many of the mandatory care categories,” she said, including so-called family planning, outpatient services, inpatient services, and physicians’ services.
“Thus, the Hyde Amendment was enacted to prevent public funding of abortion with federal dollars,” Dr. Hilliard said.
Created in 1976, the Hyde Amendment is attached each year to the annual appropriations bill for the Department of Health and Human Services, and it prevents any program under HHS, such as Medicaid, from paying for abortion except in the cases of rape, incest or where the life of the mother is at risk.
“However, any federal health care legislation must specifically invoke the Hyde Amendment on all options within the bill to assure its applicability, which the (PPACA) does not,” Dr. Hilliard said.
“Every meaningful amendment offered to remove abortion from the act failed,” she said, although she noted that currently there are several bills in Congress designed to remedy that failure.
Father McLean Cummings, parochial vicar at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Ellicott City and a spiritual director at Mount St. Mary’s University Seminary in Emmitsburg, provided a somewhat more theological view, posing the question of whether major healthcare reform might be “too much of a good thing.”
He said we need to identify “basic” health care; let non-basic care depend on ability to pay, and accept suffering as part of life while trying “to transform it into a positive thing.”
Ultimately, he said, “medicine must recognize the nature of man to find its true role.”
Archbishop O’Brien intends to extend his outreach to the legal community. On May 10, he will host his first annual lecture for Catholic legal professionals, titled “The First Amendment, Freedom of Religion, Our Church and Our Ministry.”