We recently observed the sad spectacle of the U.S. Congress failing to improve the health care system in our nation. Unable to repeal and/or replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and unwilling to work in a bipartisan way to make necessary improvements to ACA, our lawmakers succeeded only in blaming one another while they continued to enjoy the generous health care coverage afforded to members of Congress.
Watching this seven-year effort to repeal and replace come to nothing, it is clear that Democrats and Republicans must find a way to cooperate for the health and well-being of all Americans. Equally important, they must be clear about the values that guide them in such a task, and re-election should not be their first concern.
A Catholic perspective
Catholic social teaching offers several points to guide us in crafting a just health care system. First is the simple recognition that every human being has a right to basic medical services. We might disagree on what should be included under “basic medical services” and that is a debate worth having. But on a fundamental level we must recognize that no person should be denied medical services because of inability to pay.
St. John XXIII made this point in his 1963 encyclical “Peace on Earth.” The Holy Father noted that every person has the right to life and all the means “suitable for the proper development of life; these are primarily food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, and finally the necessary social services” (11).
Thus, if we believe that every person has a right to be born, then we must also work to make sure that person has what is needed to live a dignified life. This includes medical services, and this also is what it means to be pro-life in the Catholic community.
A second point to guide us toward a just health care system comes from St. John Paul II. In 1991 he wrote that the free market may be the most efficient economic system for utilizing resources and responding to human needs. He added, however, that many human needs cannot be satisfied through the market system (“On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum,” 34).
St. John Paul II reminded us of the limitations of markets: “There are collective and qualitative needs which cannot be satisfied by market mechanisms. There are important human needs which escape its logic. There are goods which by their very nature cannot and must not be bought or sold” (40).
Health care, I believe, is one of these human needs. We must free ourselves from the unchallenged conviction that medical services can be delivered only through a system that is bound to insurance companies and market forces.
Our market-reliant approaches to health care simply have not worked. Before the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010, 47 million Americans were without insurance.
While ACA reduced that number, it still left 27 million people without insurance. The most recent repeal and replace proposals by Congress would have added as many as 23 million more Americans to the list of uninsured. This is not acceptable from the perspective of Catholic social teaching.
Time for change
Given the values we find in our church’s teachings, why should we not consider adopting some form of single payer health care system in the United States? Most developed countries already have legislation mandating universal health care. It should not be difficult to select the best features from among the many versions in use around the world today. Some form of universal health care could guarantee every American access to needed medical services.
We already have embraced such a system with Medicare, a single payer system that guarantees medical services to all Americans aged 65 and older. It is time we guarantee this basic human right to all citizens, not just to the elderly or to members of Congress.
Bernie Evans is retired from St. John’s University School of Theology/Seminary in Collegeville, where he held the Virgil Michel Ecumenical Chair in Rural Social Ministries.