The issue of health care in the United States is complex, thorny and — in recent years — polarizing. In a March 4 special report for Time magazine, journalist Steven Brill uses seven months of research to redirect the health care debate, resulting in a lengthy cover story that is both fascinating and alarming. 

In “Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us,” Brill focuses not on who is going to pay high medical costs in America — as President Obama tried to address in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — but rather on why medical costs are so high in the first place.

Brill tells the story of Janice S., a woman charged $21,000 for a hospital visit that determined the chest pains she had been having were, in fact, indigestion. Not having worked for a year, Janice S. had no insurance and — once she received her medical bill — no money. Without the benefit of Medicare or an insurance provider, 64-year-old Janice S. was left to pay the full price for her treatment and tests as listed on her hospital’s “chargemaster” list — a seemingly subjective list of baseline costs for products and treatments. 

“If you are confused by the notion that those least able to pay are the ones singled out to pay the highest rates, welcome to the American medical marketplace,” Brill writes. 

For Catholics, the question becomes: What priority do we put on effectively addressing the issue of health care in the United States? At its highest levels, the Church has deemed access to medical care a fundamental right of the human person. 

In his 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris (“Peace on Earth”), Blessed John XXIII outlined health care as one basic right of the “proper development of life.”  

“Man has the right to live,” he wrote. “He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services.” 

Using the former pope’s words as a springboard, the U.S. bishops issued similar thoughts in their pastoral letter “Health and Health Care” in 1981. 

“For the Church, health and the healing apostolate take on special significance … because the Church considers health care to be a basic human right which flows from the sanctity of human life,” they wrote. 

Thirty-one years later, however, faithful Catholics are being forced into a balancing act when it comes to championing a health care overhaul in America. The unfortunate decision by the Obama administration to mandate that abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and birth control be universally paid for through the Affordable Care Act has prevented U.S. bishops from backing the new law. 

But that doesn’t mean they, or any faithful Catholic, should rest until the injustice of the American health care system is addressed at its root problem: the problem so effectively outlined in Brill’s piece. Why are the prices so high? How can and do hospitals get away with charging $77 for a box of gauze pads? Why do CT scans that would cost $825 under Medicare cost $6,538 for an adult under the age of 65? Should the sorrow of illness really have the extra burden of potentially leading to the misfortune of bankruptcy?  

As Catholics, we have a duty to see that those in need of care receive it. This is, after all, Jesus’ Gospel call in Matthew 25: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me ... ill and you cared for me.” 

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen Crowe, editor; Sarah Hayes, executive editor