“Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers�? Freely you have received, freely give”
A woman holding a clipboard in front of a supermarket urges passers-by to sign a petition. Religious leaders demand action from their state legislators. Thousands of volunteers from churches, synagogues, and mosques work to attract national attention. All are fighting for a common cause: comprehensive health care reform. These images were a reality in Massachusetts this past spring when a Boston-based interfaith group advocated for passage of a bill greatly expanding access to affordable, high quality health care for all residents of the state.
Distressing details demonstrate the problems with the American health care system: we spend on average two and a-half times more per person on health care than other wealthy nations; health insurance premiums grow five times faster than wages; and more than 46-million Americans are without insurance. Millions of Americans live in fear — fear of financial devastation, fear of substandard care, and fear of what might happen to them and their unprotected family members. Our health care system is broken. Yet while the federal government has so far failed to fix it, a few people in Boston were able to get the ball rolling on the state level. Their tools: imagination, determination, and faith.
With more than 550,000 uninsured residents, Massachusetts struggles with the same diseased health care system that plagues our nation. The Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) — motivated by a profound sense that it is morally wrong for fellow Americans to go without health care — stepped in to change the status quo.
The GBIO is an association of 70 Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faith organizations. Led by Rev. Hurmon Hamilton of Roxbury Presbyterian Church and Rabbi Jonah Pesner of Temple Israel in Boston, the GBIO launched Affordable Care Today (ACT), a coalition composed of other religious congregations, community development corporations, unions, and civic organizations in the greater Boston area.
The coalition constructed its campaign with several planks. GBIO leaders developed principles of moral health care reform, which they used to build a public relations campaign. The group captured press attention and engaged the public with news conferences, rallies at the State House, and other open community events. They maintained pressure on politicians to act with regular meetings and by hammering the op-ed newspaper section.
Most significantly, the GBIO gathered 125,000 signatures and put its own universal health care mandate on the Massachusetts November ballot. Addressing the legislature, Rev. Hamilton declared, “From all across this Commonwealth, we will rise up, take care of reform at the polls, but hold you accountable.” On April 12, the legislature enacted landmark legislation extending health coverage to all Massachusetts residents. This legislation addressed in detail the principles for moral health care reform that the GBIO spelled out initially.
Analysts nationwide hailed the bill as an inspirational success, one that Massachusetts lawmakers from both political parties labored to achieve. The religious community praised the legislation for addressing an important moral issue. Christianity Today reported that Richard Land, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, lauded the bill and called for further action, saying, “The Bible tells us to do unto others as we would have others do unto us. If I were uninsured, I would want others to come to my aid and demand solutions. With this country’s economic prosperity, we can and should find ways to provide health care for everyone.”
Further action is needed for the millions of Americans who remain uninsured. Many faith organizations have position statements in favor of universal health care, from the United Church of Christ to the National Association of Evangelicals, whose web site states, “The need for change seems evident�? it is troubling that so many Americans are without health insurance.” Religious leaders of the major denominations in this country need to move from words to deeds.
Never has there been a better moment for people of faith to have an impact on the political landscape. The progress in Massachusetts illustrates the force of faith in uplifting the health care system. If religious leaders insist on reform, politicians will listen — or face a mobilized citizenry. Universal health care is a moral matter, and framing the issue this way might be just what it takes to resolve this pressing need for our nation as a whole.
The time is now for the faith community to take charge of the health care debate and effect change.
Elliot Forhan is an intern with the Domestic Policy Team of the Center for American Progress