Looking Firsthand at America's Health Care Crisis


"How much do you think this bottle of pills costs?" asked my wife, several days after I had returned home from a month in the hospital for the treatment of acute leukemia.

I was stunned when she told me the price for a 30-day prescription was more than $4,000. With our insurance coverage our actual cost was a $25 co-payment.

 

A few weeks later, Betsy again played the guessing game, holding the bill from the Vanderbilt Medical Center. My first guess was way off. My second guess was far too low. My third guess was still not even in the ball park.

 

She read another staggering figure. And that did not even include the doctors' bills!

 

I immediately wondered if treatment was worth such an astronomical cost. Did the cost of treatment, which has no guarantee of a cure, justify this expense? Was my life worth my family's financial ruin? How would we help to cover our children's college education? Would we lose our house? Could we ever afford to retire?

 

Thankfully, she quickly told me the much-lower figure that we would actually have to pay, due to our insurance coverage. I was disbelieving and relieved beyond words.

 

We clearly have wonderful health insurance. We are among the wealthy Americans who have access to affordable health insurance plans and the ability to pay for them.

 

While we are grateful for our personal situation, we now have a firsthand, sharp emotive and moral concern about our national neighbors. We don't know how folk survive without health insurance.

 

About 45 million Americans go all year without health insurance, up from 38 million who lacked coverage 10 years ago. According to some, millions of additional Americans go without health coverage sometime during the year.

 

Since elderly Americans have Medicare, uninsured adults are younger Americans. Almost 70 percent of uninsured, non-elderly adults are between ages 21 and 44.

 

In Tennessee, state government is moving swiftly toward eliminating 323,000 people—the poor, elderly, uninsurable and those with disabilities—from its health insurance program known as TennCare. The Democratic governor's rationale is that the program strains the state's financial resources.

 

Tennessee's Catholic bishops and leaders have urged the governor to "provide for those who are left without the safety net that TennCare has provided for the last decade." They argued that everyone had a "fundamental right to appropriate medical care."

 

African-American Baptist clergy have been among the clearest and strongest voices in defense of health care for those about to get axed.

 

Tennessee's white church leaders, especially Southern Baptists and other evangelicals, have been largely mute.

 

Yet health care was central both to Jesus' witness (Lk. 4:16-19) and to what he expected from his followers (Mt. 25:31-46). He healed (Mt. 9:35-38). He gave his followers the authority to heal (Mt. 10:1-11). He advocated the practice of caring for outcasts—"the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind" (Lk. 14:12-14)—who suffer from ill-health. He welcomed the most vulnerable strangers—prostitutes and children.   

 

From Abraham's tent (Gen. 18:1-8) through Paul's letter to the Romans (Rom. 12:13), the biblical witness calls for us to "practice hospitality." Hospitality—caring for strangers, the sick, the disability, the poor and those at risk— is central to the nature and mission of the faith community. 

 

The church expressed this commitment with the founding the earliest hospitals and establishing hostels. Hospitality was at the core of the Christian identity.

 

So, why isn't America's growing health care crisis front and center of the church's agenda? Why isn't accessible and affordable health care for all Americans a non-negotiable moral issue in the public square for people of faith?

 

With so many politicians playing clergy and clergy playing politicians, one would think that solving the nation's health care crisis would be the most important national issue.

 

Perhaps the reason it is not has to do with the Christian community's lack of self-differentiation. Rather than being in society and giving witness to a unique way of living, we let society's values and agenda determine our values and agenda. Blurring the distinction between a secular political agenda and the church's authentic mission, we fail to do what we should.

 

As I understand my form of leukemia, acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL), it results from white blood cells failing to self-differentiate. Instead of maturing and performing their intended purpose, these cells remain immature and reproduce uncontrollably, failing to fight inflection and resulting in ill-health.

 

Gratefully, in no small measure due to health insurance, I have treatment designed to cause these flawed cells to mature and pursue their intended mission. 

 

I wish America's faith community had such a treatment plan, leaving behind its ill-health and prioritizing the practice of hospitality so that all God's children received good health care.

 

Robert Parham is the executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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