The Common Good

Three Moral Issues of Health Care

Sojomail - July 2, 2009


Mr. Ricci and his fellow petitioners understandably attract the court's empathy, but they had no vested right to promotion, and no person has received a promotion in preference to them.

- Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissenting from Monday's Supreme Court ruling that white firefighters were the victims of discrimination when the city of New Haven, Conn., discarded test results that revealed disparities in scores between black and white applicants for promotions. Her choice of the word "empathy" in her spoken statement seemed to reference conservative criticism of President Obama for saying he wants judges who can show empathy for those who are vulnerable. (Source: Los Angeles Times)

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Hearts & Minds by Jim Wallis

Three Moral Issues of Health Care

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Good health is the will of God for each and every one of his children. Death, disease, and pain did not exist in the Garden, and Revelation tells of a “new heaven and new earth,” where once again they will not exist. We live in a fallen world where injury and sickness are a fact of life. In fact International Classification of Disease now identifies 68,000 distinct diagnoses. Every year in our country there are about 119 million ER visits, up to 902 million doctor's office visits, and about 3.5 billion prescriptions filled.

Perfect health will never be achieved and physical death on this earth will never be overcome, but the scriptures paint a clear picture that this was God’s intent from the beginning and will be the goal once again in the end. This means that 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.

There is not a religious mandate or God-ordained system of health care or insurance. No amount of biblical exegesis or study will lead you to a policy conclusion on health care savings accounts, personal versus employer provided insurance, single payer public systems, or private insurance plans. Luke might have been a physician, but he still never commented on whether or not computerizing medical records should be a national priority.

These policy questions are still of vital importance and will be debated and discussed in the coming months at the White House, in Congress, in the press, and I hope in our churches. With an issue like health, deeply personal but of great public concern, I believe that the faith community has a unique and important role to play. That is, to define and raise the moral issues that lay just beneath the policy debate. There will be a lot of heat, maybe even a few fires, over the weeds of the policy, and the faith community has the opportunity to remind our political and national leaders about why these issues are so important -- why they speak to our values.

There are, I believe, three fundamental moral issues that the faith community can focus on and call our political leaders back to, lest they forget. They are: the truth, full access, and cost.

The Truth

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

Already, industry interests and partisan fighting are threatening the opportunity for a public dialogue about what is best for our health care system. As a resource for congregations, small groups, and individuals, Sojourners has worked with its partners to publish a health care tool kit [click here to download] to help frame and guide this necessary debate. This guide gives an overview of the biblical foundations of this issue and frequently asked questions about it. What we need is an honest and fair debate with good information, not sabotage of reform with half-truths and misinformation.

Full Access

The second fundamental value question is that of quality and affordable full access to health care. About 46 million people in our country today are uninsured and many more find themselves without adequate coverage for their medical needs. Many of them are working families who live in fear of getting sick or injured. Some delay seeking medical attention at the risk of their own health and increasing cost later on, or use emergency room services instead of primary care physicians. An estimated 18,000 people a year die unnecessarily, many from low-income families, because they lack basic health insurance. As a father, I know how important the health, wholeness, 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.


The third issue is cost. An estimated 60 percent of bankruptcies this year will be due to medical bills. Seventy-five percentof those declaring bankruptcy as a result of medical bills have health insurance. The costs of medical care stem from varied sources. Some of these costs come from malpractice lawsuits, some from insurance companies with high overhead and entire divisions of employees hired to find ways to deny benefits. Someone who thought they were insured could find out that their benefits were terminated retroactively because the insurer decided that there was a pre-existing condition. In the end, some are paying too much for care and others are making too much from these present arrangements.

There is a lot of money, to say the least, wrapped up in health care. The faith community needs lift up the concerns of those who have no lobbyists on Capitol Hill or PR firms with slick advertising campaigns.

These are pressing issues for our country, lives are at stake, and it is a debate we must have and take seriously. For the month of July, we will be taking this discussion to our blog and having some of our regular writers and guests give their opinions and perspectives.

There are a myriad of special interests groups who will be promoting their own self-interests during this process. The faith community has the opportunity to step in and 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 from 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.

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