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The public health plan: a pro-life non-starter

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee has posted on its website its version of the health care reform bill. It’s called the “Affordable Health Choices Act,” and, as promised, it contains a public health care option. The impact on other health insurance providers is reason enough to oppose a public health plan, but an even greater reason is the way it is going to undermine pro-life values.

The public plan’s immediate and long-term threat to pro-life values is what makes it a non-starter. The plan’s immediate threat to pro-life values is evident from its failure to provide any pro-life protections.

There is no protection for health care providers who, due to their faith convictions, cannot provide abortion or abortion referrals. There is no protection for pharmacy owners or workers who cannot in good conscience dispense abortion drugs. There is no restriction on abortion, either. There is no language in the bill that would prevent the public plan from paying for any abortion under any circumstance. The bill does not even prevent the eventual inclusion of assisted suicide as a benefit.

Some will argue that the bill doesn’t have anything to say about these things one way or another, but that is precisely the point. The bill’s failure to explicitly protect these pro-life values will be interpreted as a requirement to ignore them.

It is instructive to remember the struggle to stop abortion funding through Medicaid on this point. In Medicaid law what isn’t explicitly prohibited is therefore required. This is why Medicaid began paying for abortion as a covered benefit when abortion was legalized in 1973. It took the Hyde Amendment in 1976 to change that by explicitly restricting the use of taxpayer funds for abortions except in the cases of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother.

The Hyde Amendment continues to protect taxpayers from paying for elective abortions. However, the Hyde Amendment is itself on a death watch these days. The amendment must be approved annually. It is clear that many in Congress would happily drop the Hyde Amendment language if they could. Many of us thought Congress would try to omit the amendment last year. Furthermore, the Hyde Amendment doesn’t protect other pro-life values, like conscience protections and banning assisted suicide.

Of further concern is that the bill authorizes the secretary of Health and Human Services to create the public health plan. The person currently sitting in that seat is Kathleen Sebelius, a long-time abortion rights protector. The fact that the benefits provided under the public plan will be decided by political appointees and entrenched bureaucrats out of public view should be enough reason to fear for pro-life values.

Given Congress’ history of excess, the long-term prospects for pro-life values are bleak as well. An insurmountable problem with the public option is that the government will be deciding what the plan will cover. Can you imagine what a health plan built by the government will look like after a few years? It will be loaded down with every imaginable benefit and coverage. In his Wall Street Journal opinion piece, “Public Option: Son of Medicaid,” Daniel Henninger writes, “Medicaid is a morass. Since the program’s inception, Congress has loaded it up every few years with more notions of what to cover, shifting about 43% of the ever-upward cost onto someone else’s tab, mainly the states.” There is no reason to think that Congress will exercise any restraint with a new health plan.

As Congress loads more benefits onto the plan, the costs will skyrocket in the same way they have for Medicaid. While the government will certainly raise taxes and/or premiums to pay for the higher costs, it will eventually have to resort to the same rationing scheme under which people in England and Canada are suffering.

In England, it is illegal for doctors even to tell patients about drugs that the country’s health care rationing body has determined to be too costly. It doesn’t even matter if the drug has proven helpful to some people. If it costs too much per person, it can be disallowed for coverage, and doctors cannot even tell their patients the drug exists. In Canada a person literally can die while waiting for rationed treatment.

While the American health care system has its flaws, especially when it comes to abortion, it still places a much higher value on life than either the English or Canadian plans. I suppose rationing is one way to keep health care “affordable,” but I’m sure it’s not what most Americans want. If England and Canada can’t figure out how to make a public plan work without rationing, there is no reason at all to think our government will do any better. We must continue to move pro-life values forward, not backward.

Making it possible for every person to get and keep health insurance is a pro-life value worthy of everyone’s support. But I do not believe it is necessary to throw our other pro-life values under the bus in order to achieve that worthy goal.
Barrett Duke is vice president for public policy and research for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

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