It’s been hard to miss the current debates over President Obama’s health care reform. This hot button issue has liberals and conservatives going head-to-head and dominating the summer news cycle. But all political disputes aside, the bill raises questions about the relationship between religion and health care and all kinds of religious groups are scrambling to have their voices heard including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, faith-based mutual insurers, and the Sikh Council on Religion and Education.
Some of you might have caught wind of the controversy in Massachusetts earlier this spring over a joint venture between a Catholic hospital system, Caritas Christi Health Care network, and the nonreligious health organization, Centene Corp, under the state’s universal health care program. While Catholic hospitals do not perform abortions, the partnership would have required Caritas to refer patients interested in abortions to outside clinics, ultimately leading Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley to call off the Catholic hospital’s plans. A very similar debate is now swirling around President Obama’s national health care bill because some of the proposed plans could require confidential family planning services such as abortion. Catholic hospitals are clearly torn between their commitment to providing care to the poor (one in eight hospitals in the United States is affiliated with the Catholic Church) and condemning elective abortion and contraception. The U.S. Conference of Bishops has indicated the changes that it would like to see made in the bill but some feel that the media has largely ignored their voice. As the debate continues, all Catholics and especially Catholic health care providers will continue to wrestle with these issues.
Catholics aren’t the only religious group struggling with the new bill. Faith-based mutual insurers are worried that health care reform might leave them out in the cold. These non-profit insurers act as a clearinghouse for uninsured individuals who have medical expenses and those who desire to share the burden of those medical expenses. They hope that the new health care legislation will take a cue from the Massachusetts model that currently “permits an exemption for ‘any health arrangement provided by established religious organizations comprised of individuals with sincerely held beliefs.”’ Although it is an unorthodox way to pay medical expenses, an estimated 100,000 members have chosen to participate in faith-based health insurance plans. However, critics continue to point out that there is no guaranteed coverage and cite it as evidence that health care reform needs to happen.
On a final note, Oliver Thomas, a minister, lawyer and author of 10 Things Your Minister Wants to Tell You (But Can’t Because He Needs the Job), offers his opinion whether or not God would back universal health care.
It’s interesting to note yet another way that religion and health care are interconnected – even within such a complex issue as reforming the U.S. health care system.