The Catholic Health Association outlined broad policy goals it will bring to the new Congress Feb. 8 at the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering.

The "high-level principles," as explained by Clay O'Dell, CHA's director of advocacy, include ensuring that each person has health benefits covering essential services through each stage of life; achieving health equity by delivering the same level and quality of care to "everyone in our nation without exception"; and addressing the additional access and affordability needs of low-income families and individuals.

O'Dell also listed issues that dovetail with those priorities: ensuring access, coverage and affordability for all; ensuring a strong safety net; strengthening aging and chronic care services; protecting life and ensuring conscience protection; and improving the health and well-being of communities.

He spoke at length about eliminating disparities in health care access and services during the session, titled "Responding to the Call."

"We also have that unique mission and identify and a lot of that comes into this advocacy priority," O'Dell said. "The CHA and our members are very much focused on what you are working on," he told participants.

"One of the buzzwords in health care we hear a lot are the social determinants of health," he said. "We focus on it as a social justice issue as well."

One of the areas CHA works on is immigration. "That intersects with the health care of all regardless of immigration status," O'Dell said, taking in the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program and border and related migration issues. "Those are all social justice issues that we work on closely with our Catholic partners," he said.

"A good environment can affect health, and a bad environment can affect health."

O'Dell said the CHA should have its legislative portfolio finalized by the end of February.

Of immediate concern during the coronavirus pandemic is support for front-line providers, strengthening the national and global COVID-19 vaccination effort, and protecting and expanding health coverage, according to Paulo Pontemayor, CHA director of government relations.

To CHA's list Pontemayor added addressing health disparities, promoting equity, protecting immigrant families, bolstering the social safety net, and the support of maternal care, behavioral health and access to quality palliative care.

"Hopefully, in the next two weeks we'll get language" in a bill to be considered in Congress, Pontemayor said. There is no telling when either chamber would consider such a bill, he said, adding: "Unemployment insurance is expiring. When given a deadline, that's when Congress chooses to act."

Kathy Curran, CHA's director of public policy, discussed CHA's "Confronting Racism by Achieving Health Equity Initiative," which was announced Feb. 4. Curran said 23 of CHA's largest members have already committed to the initiative.

It includes "immediate action to achieve COVID-19 health equity, and long-term systemic change for health equity," Curran said, meaning "putting our own house in order, building right and just relationships with our communities, and advocating change to end health disparities and systemic racism."

This takes in "how we hire, how we promote -- what we've been doing already, but we need to step it up," she said, adding, "We need to step our cultural competency programs for our employees, and many of our systems have understood and will undertake programs in conscious bias."

Curran said, "Through our community benefit program, we have many good relations with community groups, but this takes it to a new level."

CHA represents more than 2,200 hospitals, nursing homes and long-term care facilities across the country.