SEN. NELSON - Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., is trailed by reporters as he talks about a compromise for his vote on health care legislation at the U.S. Capitol Dec. 19 in Washington. (CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)
LINCOLN (SNR) - Crafting health care reform legislation on a national level has turned out to be a highly political battle that continues to leave many U.S. citizens without health care coverage.
A Christmas Eve vote in the Senate led to approval of a bill that virtually ignores pro-life concerns about tax-funded elective abortions, despite the fact that recent polls have shown that the majority of Americans oppose elective abortion. Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE), despite his consistent pro-life voting record, cast the deciding vote in favor of the Senate Bill.
Less than seven weeks earlier, the U.S. House of Representatives had passed their own version of a health care reform bill. The House bill contained the Stupak amendment. Authored by Congressmen Bart Stupak (D-MI) and Joseph Pitts (R-PA), it is a strongly worded document that bans federal funds for use in abortion services in a public health plan option and also in the insurance “exchange.”
The insurance exchange is a new entity that basically offers citizens a choice of plans that operate under common rules regarding pricing and availability. Based on a program currently used in Massachusetts, this new marketplace of plans is designed to provide coverage for every citizen.
As the Senate debate on health care reform continued, Senator Nelson joined with Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Robert Casey (D-PA) to introduce an amendment that is virtually identical to the Stupak amendment. On Tuesday, December 6, the amendment was tabled.
Initially, Senator Nelson refused to support any Senate bill that did not include appropriate language to prevent tax-funded elective abortions. His vote became the all-important 60th vote needed to pass the bill on to conference (the process of creating a compromise between the Senate and House bills).
Under a great deal of pressure from his own party, Senator Nelson assured the pro-life community of his stalwart support as he and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) attempted to reach a compromise.
The resulting language was a significant disappointment to pro-life citizens and groups across the nation. Though Senator Nelson insisted that it “walled off” federal tax dollars from paying for elective abortions, pro-life organizations unanimously agreed that it amounts to nothing more than an accounting gimmick.
Greg Schleppenbach, state director of the Nebraska Bishops Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities, explained the problems with the Senate language.
“It would fund health care plans that cover abortion,” he said.
As it stands now, the Senate bill mandates that only one of the plans in each state’s insurance exchange would be free of elective abortions, but the rest of the plans – all subsidized with tax dollars from the federal government – could include abortion coverage.
“So those of us who are opposed to abortion get one option,” said Mr. Schleppenbach. “If that particular option doesn’t fit our needs, we either accept an inferior plan that doesn’t fit our needs or one that requires us to make a separate payment for abortion coverage [for everyone on the plan].”
“It actually puts the federal government in the position of providing abortion as health care,” lamented Representative Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE). “Abortion is not health care. It belongs in no part of the health care debate.”
Rep. Fortenberry expressed dissatisfaction with this process.
“We could have had a very significant victory by undertaking common sense reforms,” the congressman stated.
He estimated that issues like eliminating pre-existing conditions, controlling the rising cost trajectory, expanding basic services like public health clinics, etc., could have garnered 80% support in both the House and Senate, passing quickly and effecting real, positive change in mere months.
Instead, Congress is creating a behemoth piece of legislation that few members of either house have even had time to read, let alone understand.
“It’s mind-numbingly complex,” said Rep. Fortenberry.
From his reading of the bills, he believes that the final compromise will have a negative impact on the American public.
“It’s going to shift costs, not reduce costs, and it’s going to impact choice. And that has people very concerned,” he said.
Much as Rep. Fortenberry would like to see health care reform in this country, he is concerned that the final bill will produce a potential reduction in health care for the elderly, “unsustainable” government spending and a lack of provisions that can effectively reduce costs and improve health care for everyone.
Most frustrating of all is the behind-closed-doors negotiations that are going on now to create a hybrid of the Senate and House bills.
Only legislators who are in favor of abortion “rights” have been invited to participate in the process with representatives from the White House. President Barack Obama is also a supporter of abortion “rights.”
“Transparency in government should transcend partisanship, particularly for a health care proposal that would overhaul one-sixth of our economy,” Senator Mike Johanns (R-NE) said in a prepared statement. “Majority Leader Reid’s 2007 transparency legislation received nearly unanimous support, and now is not the time to defy it.”
Campaigning for Life
Meanwhile, pro-life citizens and organizations – including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops – are striving to make their position clear: National health care reform legislation must not use federal tax dollars to pay for elective abortions, nor should individuals be forced to pay for somebody else’s elective abortion.
Mr. Schleppenbach has worked with other pro-life leaders in campaigning for the Stupak amendment in the final version of the bill.
“The Bishops conference is trying to do everything they can so they don’t have to oppose the bill,” he said. “But if the bill provides funding for abortion, they will have to oppose it.”
Julie Schmit-Albin, director of Nebraska Right to Life, said, “We continue to hope that Congressman Bart Stupak stands firm on his acceptable language in the House/Senate conference version and that the ten to twelve pro-life Democrats in the House assist him in forcing that language into the final bill.”
Rep. Fortenberry speculated that if the bill is presented to Congress without the Stupak amendment, “I think you’re going to have a firestorm on your hands. Pro-life people do not want the federal government empowering the abortion industry.”
If it passes with the Stupak amendment, he has many other concerns.
“There are other provisions that are going to be troublesome. Premiums will rise. The elderly will see their benefits cut. We’ll have more government spending, unsustainable debt loads for our children,” he predicted. “This will be a continued source of political agitation.”
Pro-life citizens are encouraged to continue contacting their senators and representatives until the bill is voted on.
In the future, Mrs. Schmit-Albin believes that existing national pro-life groups and the recent “Tea Party” movement could do a lot to influence public funding of abortions.
“Maybe a more concerted effort should be made to push abortion funding bans through all national and state groups,” she suggested.
Rep. Fortenberry took it a step further.
“We need to create a new political, cultural movement that demands our government stands for what is just, and the first principal of justice is to preserve and protect the dignity of human life,” he stated. “It’s up to the people.”