Pink Flu and Politics

Last week was not a good health week for members of KPUMC. Some of those who traveled to New York with Credo Choir came back with the “pink flu” (because only women got it); Dwight Lind, Bill Millsap, and Linda Jackson all found themselves in the hospital at some point; Bob Smith had a surgical procedure.

But this week is not a good health week for the country. The health care bill winding its way through the Senate has just been exposed as potentially leaving 22 million more people uninsured in the future, not to mention the enormous cuts to Medicaid.

All this uncertainty about the health of our friends and ourselves causes a great deal of anxiety. Each one of us has been impacted by the high cost of health care, and even if we have decent insurance, we can’t help but worry about those who don’t.

I don’t have a solution to the nation’s health care woes. I have spent a lot of money on medical bills in my lifetime, plus I have lots of anecdotal experience in the strengths and weaknesses of our health care system. But I can’t tell you how it can be fixed.

However, as a pastor, I believe I can put a theological lens on the problem, and in that spirit, I offer the following thoughts on the health care crisis:

First, I give you the official United Methodist Church position on healthcare, which can be found here in its entirety. In summary, we believe that “health care is a basic human right.”

I support this sentiment, and would link this idea to our own confession that “God’s will for us all is shalom.” Shalom connotes wholeness and health; people who are sick are not experiencing God’s shalom. Thus, if we truly believe that the will of God is that all humanity be healthy, then we must support the idea that everyone should have access to health care.

I admit that this is a fairly simple and idealistic hope. The problem quickly becomes how best to realize this dream. To put it in the starkest possible terms, who pays for it?

I recognize that there is no unanimity over the best way to do this. That’s what is polarizing the country. What is most disturbing to me over the last few weeks is the way that the current debate about health care has been framed by certain players in government. Increasingly, the argument has been advanced that those who are sick bear a certain amount of blame for their sickness. The words “personal responsibility” are starting to float around the whole issue, as if the reason people are not healthy is solely because of their lifestyle choices. That is the clear implication of a recent tweet by the Vice-President: “Before summer’s out, we'll repeal/replace Obamacare w/ system based on personal responsibility, free-market competition & state-based reform.”

I do not doubt that lots of us don’t always make the best decisions about our health; we eat too many burgers and fries, don’t exercise enough, drink and smoke too much. But it’s scandalous to overgeneralize about who or what is to blame.

And why should the amount of health care one receives be tied to matters of innocence and guilt? Why does someone have to “deserve” health care before they receive it? Who would be the judge?

According to the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church, there are different levels of responsibility in health matters, but no casting of blame: “Providing the care needed to maintain health, prevent disease, and restore health after injury or illness is a responsibility each person owes others and government owes to all, a responsibility government ignores at its peril.”

Frankly, I am also worried about the intrusion of free-market competition into health care matters. Competition may be a positive force in commerce, driving prices down and ensuring quality and choice, but I am not certain that it has the same effect in an industry that is vital to human prosperity. The problem with a competition-model is that there are winners and losers, but human society cannot afford to have “losers” in health care. Every health care provider must adhere to standards and regulations which ensures that no harm is done. I would argue that this is best done through the machinations of democratic, participatory government.

I am also convinced that government ought to take the lead in creating the system that provides care to all citizens, particularly the most vulnerable. The importance of caring for the widow, orphan, and stranger is a principle that permeates the entire Old Testament. Throughout the Torah/Law, God is concerned that the poor are not left out or forgotten. Much of God’s wrath toward Israel comes because the vulnerable are exploited and oppressed by the rich.

So the number one question that ought to be asked of any issue that our government decides is, “How will the most vulnerable among us fare?”

If the Congressional Budget Office is correct, then the poor will not fare well under the Senate’s health care bill. According to The Atlantic, the CBO found that “a disproportionate number of the 22 million people who will lose health-insurance coverage under the BCRA will be people with low incomes. Their losses will come even as $700 billion worth of tax breaks also contained in the BCRA largely benefit the top quintile of earners … In order to pay for that tax break, the BCRA cuts more than a trillion dollars from subsidies and Medicaid. Almost all of those cuts come from the people with the least.”

That is simply not acceptable. And it reminds this pastor of the time when a bunch of goats asked,“Lord, when did we see you sick and did not take care of you?”

Finally, I think of the time that Jesus was preaching in a house that was full of guests. Four guys showed up carrying a paralyzed man who presumably had no health insurance. They couldn’t get the patient into the house because there were so many people; instead, they went up on the roof, pulled the tiles away to create a hole, and then let the paralyzed man down into the middle of the room next to Jesus, who promptly healed him.

Notice that Jesus didn’t ask any questions about the man, how much money he had, or what had happened to him, nor did he assign any blame. He simply healed him.

What goes unmentioned is the important role that the four buddies played in the man’s healing. They are the unheralded heroes in the story, because they are the ones who took responsibility for the man’s health care. They carried him to Jesus; they shouldered the burden. In their strength and wholeness, they provided for the weakness of their neighbor.

In order for health care to work in our own time, the strong must care for the weak. This means that those who can shoulder a larger part of the burden must do so. Not to absolve the weak of their own responsibility, but in recognition of the fact that we will all be sick at some point in our lives. We are not always healthy; even the strongest and most fit will go through periods in which their health flags.

When we are strong, we help care for the weak. When we are weak, the strong care for us. It’s a mutual arrangement; it’s the way God meant for human society to work. We care, and we are cared for.

Please join me in praying for our lawmakers, that health care in America will come to be more fair, just, and affordable.