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Support the University’s children

Catholic Characteristics | Sunday, November 17, 2013

At our Catholic university, what happens when a teaching of the Catholic Church is ignored and many suffer harm as a result? 
The highest concentration of uninsured children in St. Joseph County is likely right on Notre Dame’s campus. At the University Village, there are many children of undergraduate and graduate students without health insurance. Their parents cannot afford the University’s dependent health care plan. As children of international students and non-citizens, these kids do not qualify for public assistance programs like Medicaid. Many of their parents are also uninsured. Their situation, in most cases, will not be improved by the Affordable Care Act. These families earn too little to qualify for health insurance exchange subsidies and cannot join state Medicaid programs as non-citizens until after five years of residency. 
It is not news that Notre Dame has uninsured children right on campus. Many university groups have tried to help them. The recent report on the Graduate School led by former Dean Mark Roche spoke about unaffordable student dependent health care, declaring, “it stands in clear contradiction to our Catholic mission and its social justice elements, and it appears to be hurting us academically, as we are behind many of our peers and aspirational peers.” A resolution of the Faculty Senate recommended that “increasing the rate of dependent health care coverage … embodies the imperatives of Catholic Social Teaching toward human dignity, communal solidarity and tending to the needs of the poor.” And the Graduate Student Union called upon the administration to “examine ways to support affordable access to health insurance for uninsured and underinsured student families as a matter of priority, both for the integrity of Notre Dame’s Catholic character and for the competitiveness of the Graduate School.”
Over the five years I have been involved with this issue, the administration has not once responded to these invocations of Notre Dame’s Catholic character. There have been resolutions and reports to recommend recognizing the dignity of these uninsured persons, a petition drive with over 300 signatures, a peaceful protest of families in front of the Dome and many meetings. In all this, the President, Provost, Executive Vice President and Dean of the Graduate School have never referred to the Catholic teaching that health care is a human right. They have ignored it. And in so doing they have ignored the need of many, especially children, who require medical care.
President John Jenkins has become an advocate for civil discourse in our highly polarized society, the subject of a forthcoming book he is authoring. In an address to Emory University in 2011, he said of Christian responsibility in the public square:
“If I feel Christian love and good will for the other side, then it would be my duty to persuade them … To stand apart, proclaim my position and refuse to talk except to judge does not reduce evil or promote love. And if it does neither, how can it be inspired by God?”
These are words that, if followed, would heal many vituperative debates. And yet this ideal is absent from the administration’s dealings with uninsured student spouses and children.  There are many faculty, staff and students, as organizations and as individuals, who have publically and forthrightly advocated that the University must recognize the human dignity of these persons via affordable health insurance.
Rather than a respectful conversation on the meaning of the Catholic teaching that health care is a human right, the administration has stood apart and refused to talk about this doctrine. I commend Fr. Jenkins on his advocacy for a more humane discourse, I simply wish that he and his fellow officers could be the kind of leaders Fr. Jenkins would like others to be. The harm of ignoring this teaching is especially done to these uninsured children and spouses and to the Catholic character of our community, yet it is also done to the legacy of Fr. Jenkins.

Richard Klee is a doctoral candidate in theology and an undergraduate alumnus of the University of Notre Dame. He can be contacted at rklee2@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.