Clergy deeply divided on health care reform

Much of August has been dominated by the national debate over proposed health care reform legislation. Like the nation as a whole, Christians are divided on how reform should proceed, or if it should proceed at all. Central to the debate is whether or not there should be a public option where Americans could access their primary health care through a government program which would compete with private insurance companies. The primary argument in favor of the public option is that it could serves as a backstop for the estimated 46 million uninsured citizens, a figure often quoted in stump speeches by President Obama. Not having a public option isn’t a viable option for Rev. John Hay. Hay serves as senior pastor at Indianapolis’ West Morris Street Free Methodist Church. Primarily though, Hay has spent much of the last 20 years working with the homeless and working poor in Indiana’s capital. He currently works as the Director of Advancement for International Child Care Ministries, a child sponsorship organization. Hay believes having a public option for low-cost insurance would be a blessing and would bring an element of Christian compassion to citizens on the bottom rungs of the American social ladder. “I think having health care that is high-quality, accessible and affordable for all brings dignity to a person who has struggled and really been financially strung out trying pay bills,” Hay said. “Finding adequate health care makes it possible for a person not to have to worry about how they will get medical care when they really need it. It’s a basic thing that is a real benefit to everyone.” The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) has been brought up by both sides in the health care debate. Opponents of a public option point out the Samaritan did not seek government help to carry out his responsibilities. Proponents like Hay contend the parable is a clear directive from Jesus that Christians must make every effort to aid those who have the least. “I’ve cited the story of the Good Samaritan as the indicator that we can and should care for folks in toughest situations physically and emotionally,” Hay said. Pubic option critics often point to churches and other religious organizations as a possible solution to an expanded government role. Hay pointed to a study by the interfaith advocacy group Faith in Public Life which indicated that if religious organizations completely picked up the tab for the uninsured it would bankrupt them. “If you take even half of that number of 46 million uninsured which gets mentioned and asked all the churches, mosques and synagogues to cover those expenses, every one would be bankrupt in a month,” Hay said. “The idea that it should just be churches to take care of this is impossible. The reality is cost that the cost is so high you can’t do, and second that doesn’t fix what’s wrong in the system.” Hay said free clinics and other health-related initiatives on the part of individual doctors, hospitals and health care-related companies aimed at the poor are doing good work, “but they are simply often overwhelmed,” by the demand. Giving the government greater direct access in the health care system would build in a degree of accountability that isn’t available for private insurance companies, he added. “There came a point in time in this country in the ’30s where everyone pitching in as much as possible and being charitable to one another was something we decided as a nation was beneficial. We wanted our government to act in a distribution effort to the extent that it could and that’s how we ended up with Social Security. … I understand much of the criticism is coming from people who take a dim view of the role of the government having more control in this area. Where I’m coming from is this is a way to help our neighbors in a broader way than we could on our own. “You can’t hold a private insurance company accountable. We, as communities of faith and as Americans can hold the government, which is ultimately us, accountable through voting and other means of participation.” That participation should include open and honest discussions among Christians, he added. “I think all of us who study the Bible and respect theology always love to think theology will always rise above political ideology,” Hay said. “I think how people of faith are seeing this as dramatically different as they are is a real test for people thinking biblically and theologically. “It’s important for everyone to ask all the questions fully and to try and get at what is true in the legislation and to not be too suspicious and make implications too quickly that to me seems like a quick rush to judgment based on a lot of hyperbole. I think advocating for a middle ground to see what we want for our neighbors is important. “ Agreeing with Hay in substance is Jim Wallis, one of the founders of Faith in Public Life and executive director of Sojourners, a liberal Christian advocacy group that works in the social justice arena. Writing for the On Faith blog compendium in The Washington Post, Wallis argues healing the sick is a moral imperative for all Christians. “Healing is central to all our religious traditions. It is at the heart of the vocation of people of faith,” Wallis wrote. “The stories of Jesus healing people in the Gospels, of restoring people to physical wholeness and full participation in their community, always signaled the Kingdom of God. We can see from the story of the garden (Genesis 1-3) where sickness never was and from the vision of a city in which death will be no more that good health is the will of God. When we are instruments of bringing about that good health, we are doing the work of God.” Wallis also pointed to the Old Testament book of Leviticus as offering guidance toward the necessity of providing maximum care for the poor. “For example, Leviticus chapters 13 and 14 lay out a detailed public health policy in regards to contagious rashes and leprosy,” Wallis wrote. “I wouldn’t recommend it to the Surgeon General for how to deal with H1N1, but it does give moral instruction in one important area: cost. “A consistent theme throughout the Scriptures is illustrated very clearly in this passage: A good and moral society does not leave people out because they are poor. After laying out the standard sacrifice required for a sick person to be restored back into community verse 21 starts gives additional instructions, ‘If, however, he is poor and cannot afford these…’ and proceeds to give alternative sacrifices of lower cost to for the poor to pay instead.” But whether or how a restructured health care system might address anyone’s needs – poor or not – is a serious question for Bishop Harry Jackson. Jackson is the senior pastor at Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Md. Jackson is skeptical that the plans before Congress right now would have saved him in time to treat the cancer he suffered through from 2005 to 2007. “With universal care right now there would be an extended time to wait. Any delay or denial of treatment could mean death for someone like myself,” said Jackson in a Fox News interview. Jackson spoke to Everyday Christian earlier this year about his opposition to the possible legalization of gay marriage in Washington, D.C. “I nearly did twice having esophageal cancer and nearly died twice having a tumor removed twice from the top of my stomach. It was quite an ordeal. … Am I worth less because I’m worth more financially? Where we are right now, the choices the President and other would make are right now have life and death consequences for those of us that are already, if you will in the system.” Jackson said the recent, and sometimes rancorous, town hall forums on health care provided a necessary opportunity to survey available options. “They need to slow down and make sure that people like myself and others are not harmed. Other systems would require all kinds of waits and delays. Delay or denial can mean death. People in my church are waiting for transplants. There are all kinds of things that are complicated. We’re looking at philosophy versus practicality, and it’s scary to me and many other people who have been through major health problems.” Another major sticking point for Christian opponents of reform is the possibility of federally-funded abortions through the public options. Many dissenting views focus on the perspective that if the legislation does not strictly forbid money going toward abortions too much is left to chance. Under proposed legislation, money tabbed for abortion procedures would be set aside in separate accounts so they would not be directly linked to public option premiums, according to Time magazine. However, a portion of all premiums paid into the public option would still fund a portion of any side accounts, including those to fund abortions. “The health care reform act proposed by the administration presents several challenges to the Catholic community,” wrote Father George Brubaker of Milford, Del., in a blog to congregations at St. Bernadette’s and St. John’s the Apostle churches. “Although the Church supports universal health coverage, we cannot support the use of federal funds, our tax dollars, for abortion. “The problem is that the administration views abortion as a basic health care service and not as an elective procedure. A federal health insurance program funded by taxpayers would insure abortion services as a basic right under the constitution and thus set aside all state restrictions on abortion. Our tax dollars would then be used to fund abortion on demand. Cardinal (Justin Francis) Rigali (of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia), head of the U.S. Bishops’ Pro-Life Committee, has urged Congress to make the healthcare reform bill ‘abortion neutral,’ retaining the current restrictions on the use of federal dollars for abortion.” Such views are echoed by Priests for Life, a Staten Island, N.Y.-based group. Father Peter West, the organization’s assistant director, said a public option would be acceptable as long as strict anti-abortion provision are in place. “We support true heath care reform that lowers costs and guarantees quality medical care to all Americans from the moment of conception to natural death,” West said. “If a health care bill is proposed that specifically excludes coverage of abortions we would not oppose it. The bill should guarantee that people have the right to keep their private insurance. “Many matters including the proposal of a public option are matters of prudential judgment where people of good will can come to different conclusions. Abortion and euthanasia are intrinsic evils that directly take an innocent human life.” West added that he feels President Obama and Congressional allies are using too broad of a brush in addressing opponents to the legislation. “The strategy of the Obama Administration is to attack opponents of the pro-abortion health care bill as opposing all reform,” West said. “We believe this is a false dichotomy. We support true heath care reform that lowers costs and guarantees quality medical care to all Americans from the moment of conception to natural death. “True reform should exclude abortion coverage and health care rationing. True reform should also include tort reform which will bring down medical costs.” And amidst any proposed reform, he emphasized any provisions allowing a taxpayer-funded abortion was wholly unacceptable. “The right to life is the most basic human and civil right we have,” he said. “A person who respects human life will seek to protect that right by law. Any sanctions would be directed against abortionists, not women. “In addition to legislation we need to continue to help women who are pregnant and in need to choose life. There are currently over 3,000 pregnancy resource centers that provide assistance to women and their children. “We need to work toward providing quality health care to all people no matter what their age, disability or usefulness to society.” Links: Five Christian Considerations for Health-Care Reform, blog by John Hay: Jim Wallis blog from Washington Post’s “On Faith”: Faith in Public Life: How abortion could imperil health care reform from Time magazine:,8599,1918261,00.html Bishop Harry Jackson: Priests for Life:

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  1. OrdinaryWoman said:

    What the public option in the health care debate boils down to is an argument between the haves vs. the have nots. The haves want to keep more of what they have, and too bad for the have nots. I’m a conservative republican Christian, and I am ashamed of my party and my fellow Christian’s for their behavior in this problem. The system is already broke. It will cost us more to do nothing, and burden our children and grandchildren even more then they already are, if we continue to do NOTHING. Without a public option to give the insurance companies competition, or a non-profit coop, the greedy and the corrupt will continue to rule. These same greedy and corrupt insurance people brought our economy to its knees last Fall, is this what you want to continue?

    September 8, 2009

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