During my freshman year of college, after twelve seizures and as many visits to doctors, I was diagnosed with epilepsy. Still under my parents’ insurance at the time, I shelled out co-pays – which, at $25 a pop, were plenty taxing on my student budget – but was otherwise blissfully unaware of exactly how much all of those office visits, tests, and medications really cost. Then I graduated, and independent adulthood greeted me with an unpleasant surprise: I had joined the ranks of the uninsured, and all those bills were suddenly my sole responsibility. So, I used tips from my waitressing job to pay full price for the refills on my prescription and nixed further visits to the neurologist.
Shockingly, my religion and philosophy degree did not springboard me into a world of secure and meaningful employment, so I ended up in a corporate customer service job, complete with a cubicle all my own and an insurance plan partially funded by the company and partially by a significant chunk of my $17,000 salary. I was pretty excited about this whole insurance thing, and scheduled my overdue brain check-up. Then the bill arrived. The amount the insurance covered was exactly zero dollars. And so the term “pre-existing condition” entered my vocabulary. That bill only took five years or so to pay off.
About the same time my epilepsy was finally covered, I went off to seminary, otherwise known as the land of no insurance. My health care policy became, “pray that nothing really bad happens,” which I guess might be considered an appropriate leap of faith for someone entering the ministry, but it meant that I virtually stopped seeing doctors, and even stopped buying my medication for a while – not a smart move. After seminary, I entered a new job as a college chaplain, with a new insurance policy and new declaration of delayed coverage for pre-existing conditions. A few months gap between that position and my first call in a church meant yet another delay in coverage for my only significant health problem. But I lucked out, and by the time I had another seizure, the RCA health plan had kicked in.
Even under my fairly good medical plan, I still pay hundreds of dollars every year in copays and deductibles for the neurologist and neurosurgeon that I visit more often than my general practitioner, the bi-annual MRIs and annual EEG, and the medication that keeps me from falling over and twitching and generally scaring the bejesus out of everyone around me. But I’m doing pretty well these days, and relatively, it’s a small price to pay.
I tell you about my adventures in health care not to make you feel bad for me – my story isn’t really that traumatic – but rather to explain a bit of what I think about when I hear the health care reform debates that are so prevalent these days. I’ve been that person who just couldn’t go to a doctor, even when I really needed to. And if even the slightest little thing had gone wrong at some point, my life could be very different right now. If that seizure had been a couple of years earlier, I’d still be paying the bills now. If it had happened in 2000, I would have lost my job, because you can’t drive after you’ve had one, and my insurance as well. At just the time when I lost my income source, I would have gained several thousand dollars in medical bills, leaving me the choice of being untreated for a serious but easily correctible condition, or being trapped in an endless debt cycle.
What bothers me about this, however, is not how easily it could have happened to me. I’ve been lucky, and I’m also fortunate to have people in my life who could and would back me up if I was in a tight spot. What bothers me is that this could happen to nearly anyone, and is in fact the ongoing reality for many people in our country. 15.3% of American citizens are uninsured according to the 2007 census. 11% of children in the US are uninsured. These numbers may not seem terribly high, but look around you. If this room was an accurate representation of the country’s population, thirty or so of you might be wondering right now whether that nagging cold or the pain in your stomach is worth the expense of a doctor, or worrying about that persistent headache but knowing that going to a doctor may mean not being able to pay the rent. More than one out of every ten kids in our Sunday School and Youth Groups would be without proper check-ups, vaccinations, medication, and dental care.
Those figures were from 2007. In a system where health coverage for the majority of the public is tied to employment, the number of uninsured people continues to rise. That means that more and more people neglect preventative care and don’t have the treatment they need when they’re sick. Meanwhile, people with some of the most secure and comprehensive health care plans in the nation debate whether making health care accessible and affordable to all is a good idea.
Now, I realize that I am blatantly flouting the recommendations of my seminary professors and many wise ministers who advise us never to bring politics into the pulpit, and I may come to regret it. But I believe that if our faith can’t help us address the relevant issues of our time, it is meaningless – and if ever there was a relevant issue that needed a faith perspective, this is it.
Fortunately, I stand on the shoulders of a number of people who brought faith into political life. You might recognize some of their names: Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, John the Baptist, Jesus…But today, in light of this issue that is everywhere in our national life and news right now, I’d like to draw your attention in particular to this passage from Ezekiel.
He uses the language of shepherds and sheep, which is not quite how we tend to think of our political leaders, but that’s exactly who he is talking to. And their system was quite a bit different from ours, especially in the fact that it was one based on a common religion. But the point of government remains the same. The leaders are charged with the care of the public. But something about that responsibility had gotten lost in Ezekiel’s time:
“Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.”
Something had gone terribly awry. Instead of tending to the people in their care, the leaders of Israel had turned to self-indulgence. They were living the high life while their people suffered poverty, hunger, sickness, and injury. Any of this sound familiar? Ezekiel doesn’t mince words: clearly, this is not God’s vision or hope for the world, and God does not look kindly upon those who are supposed to be shepherds – leaders and caretakers – of God’s people but use their power to trample on the sheep.
Fast forward 2500 years, and here we are, embroiled in what is called a debate over health care reform. Now, I am quite certain there are people in both parties who are genuinely concerned with the people they represent. But frankly, much of what is being said seems to have more to do with one party wanting to chalk up the win for a new administration, so badly that they’re willing to make concessions that render reform almost useless, and the other party wanting to prevent reform so they can point out how badly the president they didn’t vote for failed when the next election comes around. It’s fueled by misinformation and paranoia-inducing rhetoric like “death panels,” and it has almost nothing to do with actual people who are suffering for lack of adequate health care. People argue that we already have the best healthcare system in the world, but we pay more for healthcare than almost anyone else in the developed world, and yet rank 42nd in life expectancy. Clearly something is awry. The debate as it stands is all about who wins, and if it continues this way, the real losers will be the sheep – the weak, the sick, the injured, those who for whatever reason don’t have access to good healthcare.
Although my own party preference is pretty much plastered on my sleeve here, this doesn’t really have much to do with party affiliation. It has to do with being followers of Jesus Christ. I think that as people of faith, we can hold varying views about the proposed health care legislation, and we can and should discuss whether the points of the legislation are really the best way to provide health care for the American public. The means by which we do that are a good and necessary conversation. The ends, however – the ability of all people to access good health care – does not seem to me to be up for debate. Not for disciples of Jesus, who sent his first disciples out on their first mission with the instruction to cure the sick. Not for believers in a God whose most frequent criticism of humans in the Bible is that they neglect the weak and sick. Whether everyone should have good health care should not be a question for us, and it is up to us to reframe the debate so that it’s about people instead of political gain.
Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean health care needs to come through the government. But if we’re going to oppose government funded universal health care, we as the Church had better be willing to step up and provide for those who can’t afford it. However we go about it, through political advocacy or church run programs, through our votes or with our own volunteer efforts, the vision God gives us is for a world of wholeness and health, where the well-being of all is cared for. The call God gives to us is to strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back the strayed, and seek the lost. And through that work, may God’s covenant of peace be with us and with all people.