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In Pennsylvania, churches back single payer

COMMENTARY | October 05, 2008

Morton Mintz relays comments by the director of Public Advocacy of the Pennyslvania Council of Churches holding that health care ”is very much an issue for the faith community.” (First of Two Articles)

By Morton Mintz

Are there good questions that reporters could ask of religious leaders in their communities about the morality of a system that leaves 46 million Americans without health insurance, millions more with inadequate coverage, and, because of the economic crisis, guarantees big increases in these numbers? Are there also good questions about that same system that reporters could put to businessmen in their communities? Indeed there are, as I learned at a health-care conference at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., on Sept. 18.                         

Few others were privileged to have had the same learning experience, the conference having received zero news coverage until seven days later, when a report by columnist Jeff Hawkes ran in the local paper, the Intelligencer Journal.

The conference sponsor, Progressives4Pennsylvania, seeks to make Pennsylvania the first state to adopt the form of universal health insurance known as single-payer. It is essentially Medicare for all, meaning that everyone--not just elders--would get private care paid for by the government, and with administrative costs far lower than those of private insurance. It is not socialized medicine, in which a national government, Great Britain's being a case in point, owns and operates the health-care system. (Disclosure: I was one of 15 panelists, my topic being press coverage--and non-coverage of universal health-care systems, particularly single-payer in Canada.)

The focus of this article is on the panelist whose remarks suggest questions for religious leaders. She is the Rev. Sandra L. Strauss, an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA) who holds a Master of Arts in Public Policy Studies from Duke University. But she spoke as Director of Public Advocacy for the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, which endorses single-payer for her state.

Does the Council's counterpart in, say Ohio, endorse single-payer, and if it does, why, and if it does not, why not?

She said early on that "health care is very much an issue for the faith community." Do ministers, priests and rabbis in, say South Carolina, agree or disagree, and why?

Such obvious questions flow in abundance from her full but brief prepared text, which follows:

I begin by sharing a few words from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Of all forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane." Sadly, it seems that not only have inequalities continued, they appear to be growing worse.

A colleague in another state asked his constituents the following question: What does it mean for us, as members of Christ's body in the world, to carry on Jesus' work of bringing hope and healing to all?

As this question suggests, health care is very much an issue for the faith community. As Protestant Christians—the constituency I represent—our concerns are shaped by the biblical principles of stewardship and justice.

It seems that our nation's economic and political institutions, by and large, have not been good stewards of the resources that our society allocates to health care. We fail to be good stewards of our nation's health care resources when Americans spend two to three times as much per person as other industrialized countries-and our overall health outcomes are worse!

In addition, disparities in health care coverage raise serious questions about the overall justice of our present system. All persons are precious in the eyes of God. No person's well-being can be reduced to a price and bought and sold without moral and ethical considerations. Persons are more than "consumers" of the goods and services produced by the health care system: all are entitled to care, respect, and compassion, regardless of their state of health, their medical history, their personal circumstances, or their ability to pay.

As Christians, we believe that all creation is sacred, precious and worthy of being safeguarded.  We believe that we are called to pursue justice and to practice love and compassion.  We believe that we have a responsibility for stewardship, especially for stewardship of those resources that protect the well-being of human lives.

Finally, we believe that we are called to action to advocate and work for the well-being of poor and marginalized persons, as summed up by these words from the prophet Isaiah: "Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow." Orphans and widows were considered the most vulnerable members of the society of Isaiah's time-and at the time of Jesus. This includes advocating for access to comprehensive and affordable health care for ALL persons, access not based solely on wealth, population, or other arbitrary determinant. Health care coverage must be for everyone. The religious conscience will accept nothing less.

The Pennsylvania Council of Churches has chosen to support the only proposal that addresses both of these concerns for Pennsylvania-the Family and Business Health Security Act, which would provide for a publicly administered system that covers all Pennsylvanians, but also maintains individual choice of comprehensive, privately delivered health care.

In closing, I want to remind all of you here that Jesus was a healer—and healing was one of the most important aspects of Jesus' ministry. The gospels are replete with stories of Jesus healing the sick, raising the dead, restoring sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, and making lame persons walk. He cared deeply for the spiritual welfare of all as well. He empowered others "to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal" (Luke 9:2). He never refused to heal someone because they could not pay, and obviously preexisting conditions were his specialty. It seems to me that Jesus would provide for the health and well-being of all persons.

While I can't claim that Jesus would endorse this legislation, I suspect that He would be happy to know that we are working, as He did, to provide health and healing for everyone...because I doubt that He would settle for anything less.

Some memorable context for the Rev. Strauss's remarks came from a fellow panelist, a physician from the Department of Family and Community Medicine at Lancaster General Hospital. Here's columnist Hawkes's  account:

Dr. Thomas Gates also joined the call for universal health care, having seen how the uninsured suffer when they put off treatment.

Citing an Institute of Medicine report, Gates said an uninsured person is twice as likely as an insured one to require a hospital stay for a preventable illness such as pneumonia or diabetes. Uninsured cancer patients delay care, resulting in a 50 percent higher chance of dying from the disease. Uninsured patients in general, he said, have a hospital mortality rate three times that of the insured because they delay going to the emergency room.

Gates has seen firsthand the problems. He recalled the time an uninsured blue-collar worker, a family man in his mid-20s, was admitted at Lancaster General Hospital after avoiding care until he was too weak to stand.

When the man arrived at the ER, he was diagnosed with new-onset diabetes and blood sugar levels off the chart [2,500]. His organs failed, and within 24 hours he was dead.

"His death certificate, I'm sure, says complications from diabetes," Gates said. "But in reflecting on this, it would be just as accurate and just as true to say he died from lack of health-care insurance."

Next: A restaurant operator talks about his experiences with employment-related health care.

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