The Common Good
September/October 2009

Three Moral Issues of Health Care

by Jim Wallis | September/October 2009

On a personal, national, and global level, the physical well-being of all God’s children is close to God’s heart and should be close to ours as well.

On a personal, national, and global level, the physical well-being of all God’s children is close to God’s heart and should be close to ours as well. Scripture says that death, disease, and pain did not exist in the Garden of Eden, and Revelation tells of a “new heaven and new earth,” where once again they will not exist. Perfect health will never be achieved and physical death on this earth will never be overcome, but the scriptures paint a clear picture that health and wholeness were God’s intent from the beginning and will be again in the end.

But we live in a fallen world where injury and sickness are a fact of life. Every year in our country there are about 119 million emergency room visits, 902 million visits to doctors, and about 3.5 billion prescriptions filled.

There is not a religiously mandated or God-ordained system of health care or insurance. Luke might have been a physician, but he never commented on whether computerizing medical records should be a national priority. You won’t find in the Bible policy conclusions about health-care savings accounts, personal versus employer-provided insurance, single payer public systems, or private insurance plans.

But these policy questions are of vital importance and will be debated and discussed at the White House, in Congress, in the media, and, I hope, in our churches. With an issue like health, deeply personal but of great public concern, the faith community has a unique and important role to play—to define and raise the moral issues beneath the policy debate. There will be a lot of heat—maybe even a few fires—in the weeds of the policy, and the faith community has the opportunity to remind our political leaders about why these issues speak to our values.

We should focus on three fundamental moral issues:

THE TRUTH. For decades, the physical health and well-being of our country has been a proxy battle for partisan politics. When President Truman tried to pass a national health insurance plan, the American Medical Association spent $200 million (in today’s dollars) to oppose the legislation and was accused of violating ethics rules by having doctors lobby their patients. In the 1970s, when President Nixon tried to pass a plan strikingly similar to what many Democrats are proposing today, it was defeated by liberal Democrats and unions who thought they would be able to pass something themselves after the midterm elections and claim the political credit. In the 1990s, the “Harry and Louise” ads misrepresented President Clinton’s plan, but were successful enough to shut down that movement for reform.

Now, once again, industry interests and partisan fighting are threatening the opportunity for a public dialogue about what is best for our health-care system. What we need is an honest and fair debate with good information, not sabotage of reform by half-truths and misinformation.

FULL ACCESS. Quality and affordable full access is a fundamental value. About 46 million people in our country are uninsured and many more are without adequate coverage for their medical needs. Many of them are in working families who live in fear of getting sick or injured. Some delay seeking medical attention at the risk of their own health or use emergency room services instead of primary care physicians. An estimated 18,000 people a year, many in low-income families, die unnecessarily because they lack basic health insurance. As a father, I know how important the health and well-being of my family is to me—and is to every parent. Seeing your child sick is a horrible feeling; seeing your child sick and not having the resources to do something about it is a societal sin.

COST. An estimated 60 percent of bankruptcies this year will be due to medical bills. Of those declaring bankruptcy as a result of medical bills, 75 percent have health insurance. The extreme cost of medical care stems from varied sources. Some comes from malpractice lawsuits, some from insurance companies with high overhead and entire divisions of employees hired to find ways to deny benefits. Some people who thought they were insured have found out that their benefits were terminated retroactively because the insurer decided there was a pre-existing condition. In the end, some are paying too much for care and others are making too much in the current system.

There is a lot of money, to say the least, wrapped up in health care. The faith community must lift up the concerns of those who have no lobbyists on Capitol Hill or PR firms with slick advertising campaigns promoting their interests. We have the opportunity to speak for the interests of the common good and those who would not otherwise have a voice. I am sure that every one of the 18,000 preventable deaths that will happen this year due to a lack of basic health insurance breaks the heart of God. And it should break ours, too, because healing is at the very heart of the Christian vocation.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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