Late summer is usually the time of year that is most dreaded by children – with the shorter cooler days and waning hours of sunlight that are the herald of the coming of the school year. When I was a child though, I was unusual – as if readers of this blog don’t already know that – in that I looked forward to the end of the summer: not so much for the impending beginning of the school year per se, but instead for the start of the “new season” on network television! For you see, I was truly a television child from a television family – I looked forward with baited breath for the beginning of the fall season to learn about the latest exploits of the “Brady Bunch” or the “Partridge Family” and too see what was happening to the “Banana Splits”, “H.R. Puffnstuff” and in the “Land of the Lost” on Saturday morning television. As I grew, I have to admit that this childhood obsession of mine had waned somewhat, but still television – now in the form of evening news programs, investigative journalism and shows on the public broadcasting network – remained an important part in my daily routine.
All of this now has changed drastically for me, and has changed just this summer: as all of you are aware, back on June 12th, all full-power U.S. television stations switched their broadcast over-the-air signals from analog to digital only, effectively ending all traditional – not to mention cost free – antena-only reception. Known as the “DTV Transition”, this conversion was originally mandated by Congress for the express purpose of freeing up parts of the valuable broadcast spectrum for important public safety communications (such as police, fire departments, and rescue squads), as well as allowing some of the spectrum to be auctioned to companies to be able to provide consumers with more advanced wireless services. The result: now that the DTV Transition is completed, all analog TV sets – like the one that I own – need additional equipment in order to receive over-the-air broadcast signals. Specifically, TV sets having only analog tuners need to obtain separate digital-to-analog converter boxes to watch over-the-air TV. In an effort to defray costs for consummers who may be unable to afford to buy a new television or subscription to cable, the government offered households a $40 coupon in order to off-set some – but not all – of the cost of the digital transition for analog TV set owners. If one were to analyse this DTV Transition from the perspective of our Catholic social teachings, it seems apparent that Congress in mandating the switch from analog to digital TV acted within its legitimate authority to foster the Common Good (here the allocation of the limited spectrum of the airwaves for important public safety and communications services) all the while exercising an equally necessary option for the poor vulnerable (by providing a coupon to offset the cost of conversion for those less able to bear those costs). Despite these good intentions however, the basic upshot of Congress’s action has been that for some folks – myself included – a basic commodity that was once universally available has now been premanently changed and made available only to those who have both the time and disposable income to afford the technology necessary to adapt to these changes.
As someone who has been adversely affected by these changes, I must say that I was less then pleased when the transition took effect and my once perfectly good television set went fuzzy forever, and yet, of course, I know that I still here have a choice: while my television veiwing was once a nightly occupation, I have to admit that I really probably have been making better use of my time in the evening that used to be consumed by television watching, and of course, to remedy my situation, all I need do is walk down to Radio Shack and buy a converter or break down and buy a subscription for basic cable.
Without television this summer I have been missing what is perhaps some of the best reality-based T.V. of the season – namely, the “Town Hall” meetings on healthcare reform taking place all over the country, complete with their colorful casts of citizen protestors and combative congresspeople unprepared to respond to the anger and allegations that they hear. In fact, as I read more about these Town Hall Meetings, the concerns people raised and Congress’s proposed changes to our nation’s health care system, I reflected upon some similarities between Congress’s actions in this instance and the transition to DTV. In making this comparison, its not lost on me that I’m really comparing apples and oranges: while a case – and a good one – can be made that making a change in the broadcast spectrum that will close off a sizable – and mostly lower income – minority of the population from a media source could be detrimental to the formation of an informed population in a democracy, television is not a commodity that is essential to life. Health care, on the other hand, is a commodity like no other. Although the current reform initiatives underway see healthcare as an element of our Nation’s economic recovery program – as a commodity that should be subject to market forces where competion drives innovation and delivery and where the patient is treated as a “consumer” – as Catholics we know that because health care touches upon the very life and dignity of the human person, it can’t be considered just an “economic commodity”, but instead is a fundemental human good – a necessary aspect of the overall Common Good. Because of this, both civil society (that’s you and me – individually and collectively – in Catholic social teaching “talk”) and the state have an obligation to protect everyones’ right to health care, as well as the means to take advantage of that right.
We are blessed as Americans that our county offers some of the best technologically advanced private health care treatment in the world. This treatment however, because of it’s quality, tends to be extremely expensive. In a way this makes sense, because health care is after all the human activity that cares for the most precious of subjects – the human person, him and herself. The way that the majority of Americans enjoy access to this vital but expensive system is through insurance, which is key to understanding how our health care system works today. In gaining this understanding, please remember – private insurance is a business: as such its driven by a legitimate profit motive. The way insurance companies turn a profit is simple: they attempt to pay as few claims as possible on the premiums they collect, and seek to avoid covering people who are likely to need care in the pool of insured that they cover.Most Americans are currently covered by health insurance in one of two ways: for those under 65, the majority receive their insurance coverage privately through their employers, those over 65 enjoy health coverage provided directly by the government in a program known as Medicare. Polls have consistently shown that a majority of Americans are reasonably satisfied with the health insurance that they currently receive, this despite the fact that the insurance industry seeks to profit off of their care. How can this be? The answer rests specifically on past action by the government protective of the Common Good: for the elderly – in 1965 Congress enacted Medicare which offered universal coverage to those 65 and older and broke the link between aging and poverty; for those working with chronic health conditions – Congress passed a law prohibiting discrimination in coverage for those with pre-existing medical conditions in any employer provided health insurance plan; for the very poor Congress enacted the Medicaid – a system of state programs that provides low-income children and some adults with coverage for necessary care. Falling between the seams in this uneven safety net of employer-sponsored coverage, Medicare and Medicaid are approximately 46 million other Americans – almost all from working families – who live without health insurance coverage often in fear of getting sick because of the financial ruin it could bring their lives, and in these harsh financial times there are many others who are simply one layoff away from the same situation.
It is because the burden in these gaps in coverage falls most heavily upon “the poor and the vulnerable” – those in lower income jobs in a shaky economy – that the United States Catholic Bishops Conference has for a long time advocated for genuine national health care reform – with coverage that universally protects all from conception until natural death – as a moral imperative. However, because legislation if not carefully crafted can be a pretty blunt instrument to fix nuanced societal inequities, as we pursue genuine health care reform Catholics have to be sure that in addressing the needs of the poor and the vulnerable our society does not literally “throw the baby out with the bathwater” and violate any fundemental principles regarding the life and dignity of the human person. Specifically, here this means that for Catholics its essential that any of the health care reform proposals put forward maintain existing federal laws resticting abortion, as well as incorperating current federal protections against abortion funding and mandates, and provisions for the protection of conscience rights of health care providers and religious institutions. Over the summer, the health care debate reached a critical level, and it is essential that the Catholic community speak clearly and strongly this autumn as Congress makes important decisions about the specific policies included in the legislation. There is much that is complicated about the health care debate in this country: there are several Congressional bills in progress, multiple Congressional committees involved and much information and misinformation being communicated. In an effort to help Catholics better understand the issues, the USCCB has developed a special website: www.usccb.org/healthcare that can help Catholics better understand the Church’s principles and priorities in the current health care debate as well as fundemental problems in the current bills. It is hoped that with the help of this resource, the Catholic community will be able to speak with one unified voice on what is likely the most important domestic reform legislation in a generation.
Advances in technology and the delivery of services, and the sometimes unwanted changes that accompany them, can be unsettling to the consummers of any commodity – especially one as central and fundemental to the preservation of human life as healthcare, but if in implementing these changes we are careful to do so utilizing principles as tried and true as the Gospels themselves, the negative reactions may only be prelude to an enhanced system that better protects the life and dignity of all.