By Catholic News Service

The chairman of the U.S. bishops’ domestic policy committee said Jan. 18 that a repeal of the federal health care law should not take place without immediate passage of a plan that preserves people’s access to adequate health care and also protects human life, conscience rights and the poor.

“Important gains brought about by the Affordable Care Act must be preserved” as millions of people now rely on the law for their health care, said Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

At the same time, he said, any replacement measure also must safeguard human life from conception to natural death, protect conscience rights and provide adequate health care for immigrants, the poor and others on society’s margins.

Bishop Dewane made the comments in a letter sent to members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.

The U.S. bishops “supported the general goal of the law to expand medical coverage for many poor and vulnerable people,” but they “ultimately opposed the Affordable Care Act because it expanded the role of the federal government in finding and facilitating abortion and plans that cover abortion,” Bishop Dewane wrote.

“It also failed to provide essential conscience protections and access to health care for immigrants,” he added.

“We recognize that the law has brought about important gains in such coverage and those gains should be protected,” he continued. In the days ahead, the U.S. bishops “will examine health care proposals in greater depth and from various perspectives in the days ahead,” he said.

President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law March 23, 2010.

“We remain committed to the ideals of universal and affordable health care and to the pursuit of those ideals in a manner that includes protections for human life, conscience and immigrants,” Bishop Dewane told the lawmakers. “We urge you to approach the important debates in the days ahead seeking also to honor these principles for the good of all.”

The bishop’s letter pointed out that U.S. Catholic bishops have “consistently advocated for access to decent health care that safeguards and affirms human life and dignity from conception until natural death.”

He quoted a 2009 letter to Congress from a previous chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development that said: “All people need and should have access to comprehensive, quality health care that they can afford, and it should not depend on their stage of life, where or whether they or their parents work, how much they earn, where they live or where they were born.”

The 2017 letter also quoted Pope Francis and St. John Paul II’s remarks on health care.

Bishop Dewane said that in a 2016 address to doctors, Pope Francis said health care is “not a consumer good, but a universal right which means that access to health care services cannot be a privilege.” The bishop also noted that St. John XXIII’s encyclical “Pacem in Terris” said people have the right to “food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services.”

In the days ahead, Bishop Dewane said the U.S. Catholic bishops will continue to “examine health care proposals in greater depth and from various perspectives” looking that a replacement health care plan would provide “adequate health care for the millions of people who now rely upon it for their well-being.”

Of particular concern, he said, are those with limited resources “to meet basic needs such as food and shelter rather than seek medical care.”

For this group, he said, “an introduction of great uncertainty at this time would prove particularly devastating.”