From the Prophet Jeremiah:
Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Jeremiah 8:22 (NRSV) – March 6, 2013.)
Why has the health of the people not been restored? This is God’s question of the leadership of ancient Israel, but it could certainly be the question asked of modern America! Other questions could also be asked, even in the aftermath of the healthcare reform debates, the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and its vindication as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Why is it that, in the practice of medicine, we do not have equal treatment for everybody? Why is that every American is guaranteed a lawyer, but not a doctor? Why don’t we (even now) have guaranteed health care for everyone?
By an odd coincidence, on the Episcopal sanctorale calendar today is the commemoration of two pioneering physicians and their sons who followed in their footsteps, William W. Mayo and Charles F. Menninger. Among the readings prescribed for their celebration is Sirach 38:8: “God’s works will never be finished; and from him health spreads over all the earth.” Health is an endowment of the Creator to every person; it is a natural right. Why has it been taken from the people, and why has it not been restored?
The human right to good health should mandate a system of preventive health care and medical care for everyone. Every human being should be guaranteed the right to good quality health care, to living conditions that enable each to be as healthy as possible, to adequate food, to good housing, and to a healthy environment. Arguments about reforming our health care and medical treatment delivery system framed in terms of markets, costs, competition, or insurance are red herrings rooted in presumptions that deny this basic truth. A for-profit, market-driven medical care model treats health as a commodity to be bought and sold, and leads to inequities, to severely decreased well-being, and to needless loss of life. The Affordable Care Act is, at best, a stop-gap measure. What is required is a complete re-imagining of our health care system.
Any debate about medical treatment and health care should be structured and waged within the realm of human and civil rights, within the realm of morality and spirituality. A reform of our medical delivery system must take it out of the false model of markets (“competition” in health and medical delivery is a myth!) and place it squarely in the realm of human rights. Good health and medical care are basic rights recognized in the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are guaranteed by God, protected by the penumbra of the U.S. Constitution, and explicitly spelled out in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a statement adopted in 1948 with strong American encouragement.
As Christians, we are called to remember the poor and those less fortunate than ourselves. Assuring that all enjoy their right to health care is basic to honoring life. Those without good preventive care and medical treatment when needed live shorter and sicker lives. Failure to work for universal health care sends the message that only those with the wealth to afford private health care really matter. This is a message squarely opposed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ who made it clear that we are called to care for “the least of these who are members of my family.” (Matthew 25:40 NRSV)
Recently, the Episcopal bishops of the two dioceses in the State of Ohio wrote to the state’s governor and other elected officials in support of the expansion of Medicaid coverage. In their public letter they set out the teaching of our church in this area:
The Episcopal Church affirms the following principles as they pertain to health care:
- health care, including mental health care, should be available to all persons in the United States;
- access to health care should be continuous;
- health care should be affordable for individuals, families, and businesses;
- national and state health care policy should be affordable and sustainable for society;
- health care should enhance health and well-being by promoting access to high-quality care that is effective, efficient, safe, timely, patient-centered and equitable; and
- health care providers should not be expected to assume a disproportionate share of the cost of providing care.
“God’s works will never be finished; and from him health spreads over all the earth.” . . . “Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” Good health is not a commodity to be bought and sold. It is a gift of God, and adequate preventive health care and good medical treatment are the right of every human being.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.