Commentary
By Jim Wallis 6-28-2017

“This boils down to a choice, a fundamental choice and the choice is this: Do you take a trillion dollars and help the poor and vulnerable and the working class in this country and their health care, subsidized by the federal government, or do you take the trillions of dollars and return it to the wealthy in the country? That’s really the fundamental choice here.” I heard Matthew Dowd say that on This Week with George Stephanopoulos this past Sunday. I met Dowd recently. He is a former George W. Bush advisor, and told me he is a Catholic from my home town of Detroit. He is right. These are indeed about basic choices that are not just political, but moral. It’s time to make some choices.

While a vote on the Senate health care bill has been delayed, the proposed legislation is still very much alive. And people of faith should be especially troubled by this serious life issue: Twenty-two million Americans would lose their health insurance under the bill, and 15 million will lose the Medicaid their health depends upon.

While the bill was drafted — behind closed doors with a small group of Republican men — to fulfill the Republican campaign promise of “repealing Obamacare,” it goes far beyond that. The most important takeaway is this: The Senate bill, like the House bill, is a Trojan horse that uses the cover of repealing and replacing Obamacare to do two fundamental things:

  1. Give hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts that will primarily benefit the richest Americans, and
  2. End the Medicaid program as we know it.

Medicaid is an entitlement program that was passed during Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration in 1965 — five decades ago. Today, it pays for health care services for several of society’s most vulnerable groups: poor people, disabled people, children, and elderly Americans in nursing homes. Here are some of the key numbers. Medicaid covers: 

  • 20 percent of all Americans,
  • 49 percent of all births,
  • 64 percent of all nursing home residents,
  • 40 percent of all poor adults,
  • 30 percent of all adults with disabilities,
  • 39 percent of all children,
  • 76 percent of all poor children, and
  • 60 percent of all children with disabilities.

It’s jointly funded by the federal government and the states. For the last five decades, it has been funded as an entitlement like Social Security and Medicare, meaning as long as people qualify for the program, the federal and state governments will pay whatever it costs to treat those who qualify. That now will all change if the Republican health care bill passes both houses of Congress.

Federal spending on Medicaid will be $772 billion lower under this plan over the next decade than it would be under the Affordable Care Act, which, combined with other cuts, would go to finance more than half a trillion dollars in tax cuts. By one new estimate the tax cuts that the 400 highest-income taxpayers in the United States would receive in the House version would be roughly equivalent to the cost of maintaining the ACA’s expansion to Medicaid over that same time period in Nevada, West Virginia, Arkansas, and Alaska combined. Think about that: Republican senators are extremely close to passing legislation that would strip away funding for health insurance from some of society’s most vulnerable people, and transfer those funds to the richest people in this country. We are at a moment when our society faces a fundamental moral choice.

Right now, enough Republican senators oppose the Senate bill to delay the vote, so they'll instead try to pass it before the long August recess. We have more time — just a little more time — to lift our voices in opposition this bill and in defense of the poor, the sick, the disabled, children, and the elderly who will bear the cost of this bill should it become law. Senators need to hear your voices.

Faith leaders across the theological and political spectrum have made their voices clear about the unacceptable attack on Medicaid in the House and Senate bills. When we as people of faith reach out, we can make a strong religious case for why the consequences of this bill are morally unacceptable to us. Most of these senators who are considering this bill claim to be people of faith themselves — and it is to their faith that we should appeal.

Many of these senators are Catholic — like Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), and Pat Toomey (R-Penn.). The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has spoken strongly against this bill, both before the CBO score came out and since its release:

“It is precisely the detrimental impact on the poor and vulnerable that makes the Senate draft unacceptable as written. An acceptable health care system provides access to all, regardless of their means, and at all stages of life. Such a health care system must protect conscience rights, as well as extend to immigrant families … These changes [to Medicaid] will wreak havoc on low-income families and struggling communities, and must not be supported … the discussion draft stands to cause disturbing damage to the human beings served by the social safety net. … The loss of affordable access for millions of people is simply unacceptable.”

Other senators identify with various strands of Protestant faith, people like Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), Shelly Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Bill Cassidy (R-La.), John Boozman (R-Ark.), and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). A large group of Christian denominations — including the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., the United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — signed a letter expressing strong opposition to the Medicaid cuts that are at the heart of this bill:

The [Republican health care bill] would turn our country farther away from health, farther away from our values, and farther away from a just society. Our faiths call us to expand life-giving health care to all, not to take it away.

Sharon Watkins, who serves as the chair of the National Council of Churches and head of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination, gave the biblical justification for opposing the current House and Senate bills:

Hebrew and Christian Scriptures urge us to "bear one another's burdens" (Galatians 6:2) and "rob not the poor" (Proverbs 22:22). Jesus, whom we follow, made health and healing a high priority in his ministry. We therefore join with other people of faith from all traditions to pray that…the Senate will meet its moral responsibility to defend and expand affordable, quality health care for all."

Many senators identify specifically with the evangelical faith. Galen Carey of the National Association of Evangelicals spoke last week with the Circle of Protection, stressing the responsibility of government to the most vulnerable among us:

This human responsibility to use God’s generous gifts for the common good is shared by individuals, families, churches, other institutions of civil society, and, yes, also government. … No biblical passage relieves government of its responsibility to provide for its impoverished citizens … Our call to protect programs that serve our most vulnerable neighbors transcends any political party … we support fiscal responsibility that … protects the most vulnerable among us, and does not ask them to shoulder the major burden of balancing our national budget.

Lt. Col. Ron Busroe from The Salvation Army also made a strong statement at the gathering about budget priorities:

The proposed cuts … will have a significant impact on our ability to serve the neediest in our communities. Jesus said by this they will know that you are my disciples: if you have love for one another. If we love each other, we ought to be willing to help each other.

Over this congressional recess when senators are home and the critical weeks they are back in session during July, we have the opportunity and responsibility to speak up and speak out as people of faith, to other people of faith, including our political representatives of faith.

I had the chance to say this to one Republican senator who is an evangelical Christian and believes he represents many other evangelicals. I asked him to imagine a cable news story that reported senators, on both sides of the aisle, had decided they would together protect the poorest and most vulnerable among us — putting their faith above their politics or their parties. He agreed how powerful that would be. It’s that story that I will be speaking, praying, and hoping for.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, is available now. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

Don't Miss a Story!

Get Sojourners delivered straight to your inbox.

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"How People of Faith Can Make a Difference in the Health Care Debates"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines and acknowledge that my comment may be published in the Letters to the Editor section of Sojourners magazine.

Must Reads

Subscribe