Episcopalians advocate for better health-care system

April 16, 2003

The inadequacy of the nation's health-care system will be the domestic issue upon which the next federal election will hinge, Henry E. Simmons, president of the National Coalition on Health Care, predicted to about 80 Episcopal health-care professionals at a conference in Washington, D.C., April 8-9.

Simmons, head of a broadly representative alliance of 93 organizations working to improve health care, likened the current situation to the 'Perfect Storm' that occurred in the North Atlantic in 1991 that caused millions in damage and the loss of many lives. 'Such a storm has now formed in our health care system; but unlike nature's storm, this one will not abate in short order,' the physician warned. 'In fact, there is no end in sight, and there is reason to expect ever-increasing intensity and damage.'

Simmons, the keynote speaker for the national gathering 'Waging Reconciliation: An Episcopal Response to Health Care Barriers,' described three factors that have formed the equivalent of nature's perfect storm.

The first is cost, he said. 'Health-care spending is already highest in the world on a per capita basis, despite the fact that we fall far short of insuring all our citizens.' The second is decreasing insurance coverage. 'The employment-based health care system is eroding. Over time, an average of almost 1 million more Americans are added to the ranks of the uninsured each year, most of them from working, middle-class families,' he said.

The third is poor quality. 'Much of the health care we do either is unnecessary, inefficiently or ineffectively delivered, or outright dangerous,' he said. 'Lack of attention to quality results in waste of more than $500 billion each year.'

Response to directive

The two-day conference was a response to the resolution of the last General Convention (A079) that called for Episcopalians to advocate for a system that will provide 'decent and appropriate primary health care for all citizens.'

The first day was devoted to series of speakers. Participants heard from policy makers and experts about legislative proposals and the challenges in reforming the health-care system.

'We've been at this for a long time,' said Bishop Suffragan George Packard, Bishop for Chaplaincies, as he opened the conference. He urged participants 'to stand in the shoes of the poor those who don't have the dignity of health care.' He said 41 million people now lack health-care insurance.

The Rev. Michael Stewart, interim director for health-care ministries, said the church has been insufficiently organized to have an impact. 'We need to have information for the constituency,' he urged.

Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon described his proposed bill to establish a citizens' health-care working group to encourage debate about how to improve the system and provide a vote by Congress on the recommendations from the debate. 'One of the biggest barriers to health care is the U.S. Congress,' Wyden said. 'All the problems we are seeing today will be small potatoes by the year 2010. All of the problems will be multiplied many times over.' He said the gridlocked Congress had done nothing on health care since the issue was shelved during the Clinton administration in 1993-94.

The Rev. Linda Walling, director of Faith Project, a universal health-care action network in Cleveland, said new voices must take the lead if universal health care is to become reality. 'There is a particular role here for the faith community,' she said. Participants spent the final day of the conference lobbying their members of the House of Representatives and senators and their legislative aides on Capitol Hill to work for health-care reform. Legislators accepted 95 of 103 requests for appointments on Capitol Hill, said John Johnson, staff member in the church's Government Relations Office in Washington, D.C.

For some people, lobbying was a difficult challenge that required encouragement. 'We have to engage our government, our policy makers,' urged Marge Kilkelly, an Episcopalian and retired state senator from Maine. 'We are called to do this. We have a responsibility to strive for justice and peace.'

When meeting with legislators from their constituency, Episcopalians urged support for Wyden's bill and full funding for the Children's Health Insurance and the Women's, Infants and Children programs.

Strategies developed

In the days' final session, participants developed strategies to engage others in the church. They urged re-establishing a General Convention standing commission on health care and a national staff advocate. They discussed ways to encourage dioceses to engage society and the government in health-care reform.

They discovered through group discussions, poster presentations and exhibits a wealth of resources in parish health-care programs across the country. 'We must celebrate and share these with others so they can be replicated in many ways across the country,' the report from one group said.

‘If we really wanted to make a difference, and every member 'adopted' one member of Congress, we could do something profound,' said another. Johnson said later that the fact that Episcopalians came to Washington to meet legislators face-to-face was vital. 'New relationships were formed that will have to be maintained. Not having a voice in Washington means you are invisible. Then we're not fulfilling our mission and our call.'

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