Catholics are concerned whether socialized medicine is compatible with the faith . . .
Legatus Magazine, October 2009
When Kishore Jayabalan tore a knee tendon in Rome three years ago, he went to St. Camillus – a public hospital. He waited four days to get local anesthesia in order to have minor surgery. His hospital roommate had been on a waiting list for six months to get a hip replacement. The hospital provided no towels, no nightgowns and water only with meals.
“If we were thirsty between meals, we had to send friends or family to buy bottled water outside the hospital,” said Jayabalan.
As the debate over health-care reform rages across the country, the faithful are concerned whether socialized medicine is compatible with Catholic social teaching. They’re also asking whether government-run health care is wise, given the trouble with socialized systems in Europe and Canada.
Jayabalan wasn’t required to pay out of pocket for his operation, but others pay a heavier price. Italian women, for example, are generally not permitted to have an epidural during childbirth (except for C-sections) no matter how much pain they are in.
The problem of socialism
For decades, U.S. bishops have advocated comprehensive reform that leads to universal health care. At the same time, Catholic teaching and tradition is wary of socialism. In fact, the entire body of Catholic social teaching over the last 150 years has warned against socialism because of its often devastating impact on private property, the role of the family and the role of organized religion.
Many papal encyclicals — including Rerum Novarum (Pope Leo XIII, 1891), Quadragesimo Annus (Pope Pius XI, 1931) and Centesimus Annus (Pope John Paul II, 1991) — warn against socialism.
“In Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict talks about how the state cannot provide everything,” explained Jayabalan, head of the Acton Institute’s Rome office. “The state exists to ensure justice: punishment for crime, respect for private property and the rule of law. But the state cannot — and should not — love people and provide charity. It is the private individual who must provide charity.”
Many of those individuals are Catholics with a long tradition of caring for the sick and the poor. One out of every six patients needing a hospital admission in the U.S. goes to a Catholic hospital. The Church runs 624 hospitals, 41 hospice organizations, 11 hospital systems; admits 5.5 million patients and conducts 92.7 million outpatient visits every year.
“In the New Testament, Jesus travels through the country healing the sick,” said Fr. Thomas Rosica, CEO of Salt and Light TV and former chaplain of Legatus’ Toronto Chapter. “Among the most powerful and practical parables that Jesus taught is that of the Good Samaritan. Our compassion for the suffering of our neighbors commits us to meeting their pain.”
Yet as noble as the desire is for socialized medicine, serious problems — rationed care, long waiting times, lack of qualified medical personnel and overspending — exist in every country with such a system.
“In Canada, there are 800,000 people on waiting lists. In the United Kingdom, there are 1.2 million people on waiting lists,” said Dr. Donald Condit, an orthopedic surgeon and policy expert for the Acton Institute.
In 2005, Canada’s Supreme Court struck down a law that prohibited people from buying private health insurance to cover procedures already offered by the public system. “Access to a waiting list is not access to health care,” the court’s ruling said. “In some cases patients die as a result of waiting lists for public health care … and many patients on non-urgent waiting lists are in pain and cannot fully enjoy any real quality of life.”
A 2006 Fraser Institute study reported that the average delay between referral and orthopedic surgery in Canada was 40.3 weeks, said Condit. In the U.S., the wait is less than four weeks.
Catholic social teaching supports the principle of subsidiarity — the tenet that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. With socialized medicine, however, government bureaucracies make decisions far removed from the doctor-patient relationship.
Research and development often lags in countries with government-run health care. Medical technology is developed because of a profit incentive, not at the behest of legislators.
“The profit motive for companies is much less under socialized medicine because the state dictates how much to charge for procedures and medicines,” said Jayabalan.
Bureaucrats in socialized medical systems run cost-benefit analyses on whether patients are worth treating. In the U.K., the National Institute for Clinical Excellence produces clinical appraisals on the cost-effectiveness of treatments — in many cases denying patients access to the latest medicines.
Universal health care
Despite the problems that riddle socialized health care systems around the world, some faithful Catholics support the principles of universal health care with the caveat that human life is respected from conception to natural death. Universal health care, however, does not necessarily have to come from the government.
“We agree that ‘no one should go broke because they get sick,’” said Kathy Saile, the U.S. bishops’ director of domestic social development. “That’s why the U.S. bishops have worked for decades for decent health care for all. The Catholic Church provides health care for millions, purchases health care, picks up the pieces of a failing health system and has a long tradition of teaching ethics in health care. Health-care reform that respects the life and dignity of all is a moral imperative and an urgent national priority.”
However, the vision for universal health care as proposed by Congress and the Obama administration may come with a high price tag. Pro-life leaders and the bishops are asking Obama to keep his word that he will not sign a health-care reform bill “if it adds one dime to the deficit now or in the future, period.”
The left-leaning secular media are skeptical and the Congressional Budget Office says the House version of the health bill (H.R. 3200) will cost $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years, and will increase the federal deficit by $239 billion between 2010-2019. If enacted, massive deficits or massive tax increases would result. This year’s federal budget deficit has already topped $1 trillion for the first time in history.
Analysts also worry about giving more control to the federal government, which already handles 34% of U.S. health care through the Veterans Administration, government workers and Medicare/Medicaid.
The Obama administration “has been found wanting in defense of human life with funding of abortion here and overseas, stem cell research and reversing the Mexico City policy,” said Condit. “And we should give them more control?”
Perhaps most troubling, critics say, is that the president is trying to push health care reform through too quickly.
“People feel like something is being pulled over their heads, and that sentiment is coming out at the town hall meetings,” said Dr. Steve White, a lung specialist and former head of the Catholic Medical Association.
“I think we have to stop the whole process and regroup,” he said. “Why the urgency? It’s extremely complex. Even the Congressional Budget Office has raised red flags. We’re in the middle of a recession. We need reform, but there are serious financial and ethical risks.”
Sabrina Arena is a Legatus Magazine staff writer.
The public option
The Obama administration and congressional leaders are debating whether a new government-run health plan, modeled after the soon-to-be-bankrupt Medicare program, must be included in health-reform legislation.
“The public plan option has been a lightning rod for opposition to health reform because many people believe it is a track to a single-payer, government-run system,” Grace-Marie Turner, president of the Galen Institute, wrote in the New York Times in August. “This new government-run health insurance program would impose mandates on employers and individuals to get and pay for health coverage, drastically expand Medicaid and impose strict new federal regulation of the health insurance market.
“What the president miscalculated in putting health reform at the top of his change agenda is that the thing people cherish most about health care is security. Change scares them, as politicians across the land are suddenly seeing.”