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Health care as a human right

Richard Klee | Wednesday, May 2, 2012

In a public letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, President John Jenkins wrote against a federal policy that would classify Notre Dame as an employer obligated to provide contraception to its employees.
Fr. Jenkins argued that Notre Dame deserves an exemption out of respect for its religious standards, for “this [proposed federal policy] would compel Notre Dame to either pay for contraception and sterilization in violation of the Church’s moral teaching, or to discontinue our employee and student health care plans in violation of the Church’s social teaching. It is an impossible position.”
This argument claims that as a Catholic university Notre Dame has a religious obligation to provide for the health care access of its employees and students. The well-established Catholic social doctrine that health care is “an inalienable human right,” as Pope Benedict XVI recently described it, is protected at Notre Dame via group health insurance and provided at reasonable cost. From Fr. Jenkins’ letter, it would seem that Notre Dame provides for its community in adherence to the ‘Church’s social teaching.’ This appearance is further promoted both by portraying the University as a “healing force” in banners around campus, and by nationally televised commercials identifying Notre Dame with the conviction that “first rate medical care is a fundamental right for every person.”
But this appearance is false. A group of concerned students and staff recently finished a survey at University Village, the on-campus residence for married students. We found that 28 percent of student spouses reported having no insurance at all. The survey also discovered a quarter of families described one or more of their children as uninsured. These uninsured children also belong to international students, who as non-citizens do not qualify for state-provided coverage. Also worth mention are women who become pregnant while on the state plan; their comprehensive coverage is lost and for one year they have coverage for pregnancy only, without insurance for any other medical cost.
How is it possible that the University could violate the very principle it projects as distinctive to its public witness of faith? In many meetings with various members of the administration, it is often claimed that provision of affordable insurance coverage to student families would be prohibitively expensive. These budget forecasts are flawed. They assume all student spouses and all student children require subsidies. But as noted above, only a percentage are currently uninsured. The costs of providing affordable health care to those who need it on a means-tested basis would be substantially less than the administration projects.
Yet, admittedly this remains an expense, one to be made from discretionary funds, because the University has not mobilized donor support for student families. Are other recent discretionary expenses made by the University as necessary as medical care for each person at Notre Dame? Reports from the Chicago Tribune, public policy sites like foundationcenter.org and various committees of the University analyzed recent discretionary dollar outlays at Notre Dame and found they cost more annually than health insurance.
These expenses include doubling and tripling compensation for some Notre Dame administrators since 2003, since some now rank at the very top for their positions on a national level. Other expenses include dozens of additional scholarships for non-revenue-producing varsity sports, begun in 2001 and graduate student tuition charged to the graduate school rather than to external research grants. Even further, the University sequesters funds for ballooning athletics’ coaches compensation via an separate entity that absorbs revenue from national advertisers, rather than directing these monies to the University’s General Fund, while advocating via the NCAA against caps on coaches’ salaries. A bit of restraint in each of these areas would yield funds sufficient for every student child and spouse to access medical insurance affordably.
Fr. Jenkins is correct to connect Notre Dame’s mission to the Catholic principle that access to health care is a human right. And a proposal to provide student spouses and children entry to the new campus Wellness Center would be a welcome step. Yet, this would only provide student families access to very basic forms of care. By Fr. Jenkins’ standard, the human right of access to health care is supported at the University via affordable health insurance. An inferior second standard that does not insure children and spouses would continue to expose these families to large health and financial risks.
The teaching of the Church on health care as a human right is clear. But thus far, the administration has been agnostic to this teaching’s consistent application at Notre Dame. By refusing to accept the relevance of the Church’s social teaching and its own publicly proclaimed principles and postponing less pressing expenditures before necessary ones, the Trustees and the administration have isolated many from health care. The answer to the original question of Fr. Jenkins’ letter, a question many Notre Dame families now pose, is unclear: by whose standard is Notre Dame a religious institution?

Richard Klee is a member of the Class of 2002. He can be reached at rklee2@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.