Clergy divisions on health care remain as legislation advances

The passage of the Senate Finance Committee’s version of health care reform earlier this week increased the possibility of a bill landing on President Obama’s desk that would substantially restructure how Americans access care and the choices at their disposal. The debate continues, too among members of the clergy on the best route for the legislation to go – if anywhere. Rev, Jim Wallis heads Sojourners, a progressive organization which has supported major pieces of Obama’s plan for moths, including the public option. Under a public option 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 Obama. The bill passed out of the Finance Committee does not have a public option provision. Whether or not the public option will be molded from other committees’ legislation into the final version presented on the House floor is undecided. Wallis wrote in a blog that affordable health care for all Americans is a moral imperative which Christians should embrace. “We can see this from the story in Genesis of the garden, where sickness was never found, and from the vision in Revelation of a city in which death will be no more,” Wallis wrote. “When we are instruments of bringing about that good health, we are doing the work of God. The gospel stories of Jesus healing people, of restoring them to physical wholeness and full participation in their community, always signaled God’s presence.” On the thorny issue of abortion, Wallis argued that while divisions may exist between groups of clergy offering poor women health care is the most proactive way to prevent the procedure. “Evidence suggests that supporting low-income and pregnant women with adequate health care increases the number of women who chose to carry their child to term — if we reform health care in the right way, we can reduce abortions in the U.S.,” he said. “While religious people don’t all agree on all the issues of abortion, we should agree that those differences must not be allowed to derail the crucial need for comprehensive health-care reform.” Any federal money spent on abortion is a non-starter, however, for members of the Freedom Federation. The consortium of religious leaders includes the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, Johnnie Moore, the director of spiritual programs and campus pastor at Liberty University, and Bishop Harry Jackson of Beltsville, Md., also a leading opponent of gay marriage in the District of Columbia. “We oppose funding for abortion,” foundation members wrote in a co-signed blog. “Abortion is not health care. We support the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death. Life, no matter how young, is not expendable and, no matter how ill or aged, is not to be weighed on a cost-benefit scale. We support conscience laws protecting hospitals and healthcare providers from coerced participation in abortion.” Unlike Wallis, the Freedom Foundation feels health care reform is not being presented as a moral obligation but rather as political gamesmanship by Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress. “We support freedom and the dignity of the individual, and thus we oppose federalization of the health care industry that would create a maze of bureaucracy which will impede and delay critical care and decrease the quality of health care. We oppose a single-payer, government-run insurance program or the so-called public option. It is time to start over with a truly nonpartisan approach to health care.” Earlier this summer, much of August was dominated by the national debate over proposed health care reform legislation as anger erupted in Congressional town halls across the country. The public option was, as it is now, in the crosshairs of the debate. 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.” 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., and a Freedom Federation member. 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 some 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. 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.” Links: Five Christian Considerations for Health-Care Reform, blog by John Hay: http://blog.sojo.net/2009/08/25/five-christian-considerations-for-health-care-reform/ Jim Wallis blog from Washington Post’s “On Faith”: http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/panelists/jim_wallis/2009/08/healing_americas_sick_soul.html Faith in Public Life: http://www.faithinpubliclife.org/ How abortion could imperil health care reform from Time magazine: http://www.time.com/time/politics/article/0,8599,1918261,00.html Bishop Harry Jackson: http://www.thehopeconnection.org/index.php/understand-hope/senior-pastor/ Priests for Life: http://www.priestsforlife.org/ Freedom Federation: http://www.freedomfederation.org/

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