U.S. Catholic bishops entered the national debate on health care reform Friday, declaring that medical care is a basic human right that should be available equally to rich and poor.
The National Conference of Catholic Bishops overwhelmingly approved a policy statement advocating universal access to comprehensive health care, but excluding abortion from any reform package.
The bishops' policy contains few specifics but rejects a two-tiered health system that would allow wealthier individuals access to higher quality health care above a minimum national standard for the poor.
"This resolution clearly reflects both our pro-life principles and social justice standards," said Bishop John Ricard, chairman of the bishops' Domestic Policy Committee.
In other action at their semiannual meeting, the bishops voted 186-17 to approve a plan to allow dioceses to administer the sacrament of confirmation as early as age 7 or as late as 18.
In the debate over health care, the church brought its experience with 600 Catholic hospitals and 1,500 long-term and specialized care facilities, serving more than 20-million people a year.
"Our approach to health care is shaped by a simple, but fundamental principle _ health care is more than a commodity, it is a basic human right," leaders of the 55-million-member church said.
The prelates said any national health plan should guarantee "ready universal access to comprehensive health care for every person living in the United States."
Many proposed health plans have envisioned establishing a minimum standard for poor Americans, with more well-off individuals having access to additional care if they can afford it.