A group representing Catholic hospitals Saturday rallied behind President Obama's health care bill ahead of a House vote in which anti-abortion lawmakers could play a decisive role.
The chief executive of the Catholic Health Association, Carol Keehan, wrote on the group's Web site that although the legislation isn't perfect, it represents a "major first step" toward covering all Americans and would make "great improvements" for millions of people. The more than 600 Catholic hospitals across the country do not provide abortions as a matter of conscience.
The association's support widens a split among abortion foes on whether the bill goes far enough to prevent taxpayer funding for the procedure. House Democratic leaders are trying to turn that debate to their advantage as they press for a vote on Obama's bill as early as this coming week. Winning over even a handful of anti-abortion Democrats could help Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., find a clear path to the 216 votes she needs for passage.
Major anti-abortion groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Right to Life Committee, are adamantly opposed to the legislation, preferring stricter restrictions passed last November by the House.
Keehan said in an interview that she believes the approach now in the bill would work just as well to keep federal dollars from being used to pay for abortion.
"On the moral issue of abortion, there is no disagreement," Keehan said. "On the technical issue of whether this bill prevents federal funding of abortions, we differ with Right to Life."
The current legislation would allow private insurance plans operating in a new insurance marketplace to cover abortions, provided they do not use taxpayer funds. What makes that tricky is that many of the plans' customers would be receiving federal subsidies to help pay their premiums. So the legislation requires plans offering abortion coverage to collect a separate premium from their policyholders. Those separate checks would have to be kept in a different account from money for other health care services.
The abortion provisions Obama's bill are identical to those in the Senate legislation that passed on Christmas Eve. But the bishops and National Right to Life prefer the approach in the House bill.
The House bill prohibited any plans receiving federal subsidies from covering abortion. Women desiring insurance coverage for the procedure would have to buy a separate policy.
Federal law since the 1970s has forbidden the use of taxpayer funds to cover abortion except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother. But many private insurance plans cover abortion as a legal medical procedure. How to deal with the divisive issue in health care overhaul was a source of controversy from the beginning.
Douglas Johnson, legislative director for National Right to Life, dismisses the segregation of funds called for in the Senate bill as a bookkeeping trick. His group has served notice it will count any vote for the House bill as support for taxpayer-funded abortion. The bishops reiterated their opposition in a letter to Congress on Friday.
"No Catholic hospital executive has ever turned out hundreds of volunteers to man the phone banks or walk the precincts for an endangered congressman or his challenger," Johnson said in response to the hospital group's announcement.
Keehan said she'll have to agree to disagree.
"We are trying to respect other people's conscience and views," she said. "But we also weigh in with our conscience and views. We think this bill is a good first step to health care reform."