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Religious Leaders Hopeful on Raising National Awareness of Health Insurance Crisis

March 12, 2003, New York – It’s been a decade since the American people debated proposals for universal health care coverage—a heated conversation ending on a note that preserved the status quo and quashed the hopes of millions of people without coverage. Since then, a slipping economy has pushed record numbers of people into the ranks of the uninsured. Nearly one in three non-elderly Americans, or 75 million people, went without health insurance for all or part of 2001 and 2002, according to analysis of Census Bureau data released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

It’s time for another round of conversation. But things will be different this time, say religious leaders from many faith groups who are supporting the March 10-16, 2003, Cover the Uninsured Week (CTUW), an initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s largest health-oriented philanthropic organization.

“May our generation secure health care as a moral legacy to the nation,” says an open letter to the American people, released March 11, in support of the special week and signed by Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, Jewish and Muslim leaders.

The leaders hope that Cover the Uninsured Week, which has generated 650 events across the nation, will rally people of faith to make health insurance “an urgent national priority,” even as they “may differ about how best to solve the problem.” The idea is that if a broad spectrum of faith groups insists that the nation keep at the task until solutions are found, their moral weight could make all the difference.

“Few social changes have taken place without the commitment, dare I say the leadership, of the religious community,” said the Rev. Dr. Eileen Lindner, deputy general secretary of the National Council of Churches, when the open letter was released. Dr. Lindner is chair of the National Religious Advisory Committee for Cover The Uninsured Week.

Pointing to past successes of religious groups in helping to abolish slavery and child labor and to establish the eight-hour workday, Dr. Lindner said when communities of faith focus seriously on an issue “new room is created for national dialogue.” And CTUW’s Religious Advisory Committee “has as broad a span of religious representation as any group in the United States,” Dr. Lindner said.

“Every one of our traditions has within it a strong tradition of being partners with God and using the resources entrusted to us” to respond to human need, said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, who was among religious leaders who spoke to reporters March 11 on a conference call. “Every one of God’s children is entitled to health care,” Rabbi Saperstein said.

In addition to the breadth of religious voices speaking out together on the issue, there is another difference from the last health care access debate, said Dr. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “Far more of the insured feel a sense of crisis,” he said, noting that health insurance premiums at his organization have recently risen 31 percent “even though we are nonsmokers and nondrinkers.”

“People are ready to listen,” Dr. Land said. “The role of the faith community is to call the nation to be their brother’s keeper,” he said, predicting that “we will see a vigorous debate” in the 2004 election year with “lots of innovative thinking.” After the election, he said, will come the work of fashioning a “hybrid solution.”

Stuart Schear, who coordinates CTUW at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, underlined the severity of the crisis, saying that lack of health insurance “has terrible medical consequences.” RWJF reports show that uninsured Americans are sicker and die earlier that those who have insurance, often as a result of “medical problems that have persisted or worsened” because the uninsured cannot afford recommended health screenings, early intervention, prevention, and access to medications.

“People are dying before their time,” said Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed, general secretary of the Islamic Society of North America, who urged that the crisis “must not be overshadowed by other news dominating the front pages.”

On behalf of his religious community, Dr. Syeed said, “In many mosques, Muslim doctors are opening clinics open to people of all faiths.” 

Bishop George McKinney, a member of the Presidium of the Church of God in Christ, whose members are predominantly people of color, added that the 10,000 churches of his denomination are involved in “a wellness initiative” to serve their communities. These communities are “disproportionately affected” by lack of insurance, Bishop McKinney said. “The Census says that one in five African Americans and one-third of Hispanics were uninsured in 2001.” Taking into account those who were uninsured for part of the year, the numbers climb even higher.

Religiously affiliated clinics, hospitals and wellness efforts based in congregations are, however, just one part of the solution, the religious leaders agreed.

In fact, “the more successful” such efforts are, “the more they reveal the depth of the problem,” said the Rev. Michael D. Place, STD, president and chief executive officer of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, whose 2,000 member institutions often provide “the safety net” in terms of primary care in their communities. “For example,” explained Fr. Place, “ a physical work-up shows diabetes, but then the patient has no prescription drug coverage. … It makes serious problems more evident for the rest of health care services.”

In addition to the open letter to Americans, CTUW features interfaith prayer breakfasts in communities across the country, to be held Friday, March 14. Liturgical materials are available for those events and for weekend services in congregations at http://covertheuninsuredweek.org/.  Efforts of the religious community for CTUW are part of a broad and unprecedented effort that also includes town hall meetings, community health fairs, campus events, celebrity participation, and business and labor activities.

“This massive campaign will reach people who have been resigned to their plight, who have been locked out of health care,” concluded Bishop McKinney. “It will engender hope.”

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