Op-Ed: Damning Daschle

Former US Senator Tom Daschle, recently tapped to be Secretary of Health and Human Services for the incoming Obama administration, is the ideal Catholic politician for a pluralistic society. While serving as both a representative and a senator, he used his faith to inform his policy positions, remaining cognizant of the many other Americans who did not share his church’s dogma—including many of his fellow Catholics.

Daschle has an impressive record on health care issues. Besides being a champion for health care-related legislation (his fight as Senate Majority Leader to expand federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research comes to mind), he laid out his ideas to overhaul health care delivery in his recent book, Critical: What We Can Do About the Health-Care Crisis.

US Catholics Disagree with Hierarchy, Agree with Daschle

But already we see the most strident of the Catholic Right attacking Daschle for the pluralistic perspective he brings to the table. The socially conservative Catholic Online describes Daschle’s selection to be the next HHS Secretary as “A Pro-Life Nightmare,” warning that: “It wasn’t that many years ago that Tom Daschle was the pro-life movement’s worst congressional nightmare. Over the years, as a senator and Senate Minority Leader, he constantly supported pro-choice legislation and initiatives.”

The report continued: “Describing himself as a Catholic, in 2003 the 61- year-old senator from South Dakota received a letter from Bishop Robert Carlson, the bishop of the Diocese of Sioux Falls, instructing the legislator to stop referring to himself in that manner.”

As an American who is also a practicing Catholic, I find such an admonition troubling. Bishop Carlson’s neo-Carlist demand (the belief that orthodox Catholic theology should be the moral compass for secular society) seems oblivious to the pluralistic nature of the United States. It is all too symptomatic of the hierarchy’s unrelenting obsession with abortion and other biological issues; an obsession that sacrifices legislation that addresses more pressing life issues such as universal health care.

Barack Obama was not elected president by the US Catholic Conference of Bishops, some of whom spoke out against his candidacy in the most outrageously threatening manner. Instead, he was elected by a majority of the aggregate population. Part of that aggregate group was American Catholics, who voted for him by a margin of 54-45%.

Polling has repeatedly proven that a plurality of American Catholics are pro-choice. Likewise, they also support embryonic stem-cell research in numbers a bit above the national average. A few oppose abortion under any circumstances and a slightly larger minority believes that it should be available under any circumstance. In any case, however, a significant majority does not want it outlawed.

Daschle’s Bold Idea

There are now approximately 47 million Americans without adequate health care coverage. Beyond that, families increasingly face the threat of bankruptcy that often accompanies catastrophic illness—a devastating cycle now being accelerated by the current economic downturn.

Daschle’s idea is not to completely do away with the current system but to fine-tune it. Those who are happy with their current plans can stay with them, though preexisting conditions would no longer be an excuse to deny coverage. For the previously uninsured, a public plan, provided and regulated by the federal government, would be available.

But perhaps his boldest idea is the creation of a Federal Health Board that would drive down the onerous administrative costs that burden health care providers. As the former Senate Majority Leader himself explains:

Our administrative costs, on a per capita basis, are seven times higher than that of our peer nations. Each state has their own system for Medicaid and insurance regulation. We have different health-care systems for active duty military members versus veterans. And private insurers spend billions trying to enroll the healthy and avoid the sick. A Federal Health Board that sets evidence-based standards for benefits and quality for federal programs and insurance will lower this complexity and thus costs.

The Fed Health could also promote quality and save money by making the health-care system more transparent. Today, the lack of transparency in the system makes it virtually impossible for people to grasp what they are paying for and who provides them with the best care.

Additionally, the Fed Health could set standards for quality and coverage, promoting best practices and identifying the trade-offs on services. It would use information on the comparative clinical and cost effectiveness of different treatment options to set standards for Federal programs. The Congressional Budget Office recently credited this idea with the potential to produce substantial system-wide savings.

Truly innovative stuff. Beyond that it addresses an important aspect of Catholic social teaching by providing universal health care for all of America’s citizens, something the overwhelming majority of American Catholics agree with. And like the majority of his co-religionists, Tom Daschle’s pro-choice position and support for the federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research proves that President-elect Obama has chosen a Secretary of Health and Human Services who understands the importance of keeping church and state separate.