President signs health bill into law

Faith-based groups stay the course
March 22, 2010

President Barack Obama signed the health-insurance overhaul bill, extending coverage to some 30 million uninsured people, into law March 23 during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House.

"After a century of trying, today after over a year of debate, today, after all the votes have been tallied, health insurance reform becomes law in America," said Obama, during the ceremony broadcast live on television and the Internet.

Diocese of Connecticut Bishop Suffragan James E. Curry, speaking to ENS from the House of Bishops meeting in Camp Allen, Texas, called the legislation "a wonderful step that continues our national walk toward accessibility." The Episcopal Church's longstanding commitment to health care reform is deeply rooted in the Baptismal Covenant, he said.

"For 2,000 years followers of Jesus have been at the forefront of efforts to provide for the health and well being of all people. We do this because the law of love compels us to care for everyone," Diocese of Maryland Bishop Eugene T. Sutton said in an e-mail to ENS. "While people of good will disagree about some controversial provisions in the new health care legislation, in the main, Christians everywhere should rejoice that our society has taken a major step toward ensuring that all citizens have adequate and equitable access to health care without fear that sickness will result in their financial ruin. For that alone we say, 'Praise God!'"

Curry and Sutton were among the seven Episcopal bishops who travelled to Washington, D.C. in September 2009 to advocate on Capitol Hill for health care reform.

Members and bishops of the Episcopal Church, the church's Washington-D.C.-based Office of Government Relations, its Episcopal Public Policy Network and the ecumenical faith community continued to advocate for the health bill and press representatives to pass the bill up to March 21, when the bill passed the House by a vote of 219-212.

"This is really an amazing change in how heath care is going to work in America," said DeWayne Davis, OGR's domestic policy analyst. "We are now telling the American people that you don't have to worry about losing health insurance."

Faith-based groups began working collaboratively on health care after Obama was elected in 2008 and it became clear that health care would be a signature piece for his administration, Davis said.

"Faith groups early on realized that their voices would likely get muffled in a big issue with a lot of stakeholders with money," he said, adding that the groups leveraged every relationship they had to amplify the faith voice.

EPPN used appeals and policy alerts, the most recent alert urging Episcopalians to tell their representatives in Washington that it was time to act was sent March 16, to keep health care on Episcopalians' minds.

OGR worked with the National Coalition on Health Care, PICO National Network and organizations like Faithful Reform in Health Care, along with the Washington Interreligious Staff Community, a loosely organized group that includes the Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian churches, Jewish and Islamic groups and others.

Not all the faith-based groups agreed on what the legislation should include, with some calling for a single-payer system and others not, but they came together and stayed on the central message: quality, affordable health care for all, Davis said.

When bill opponent Scott Brown was elected in mid-January to fill the seat held by health-care reformer Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy until his death last August, and the health-insurance bill seemed doomed to fail, the faith community coordinated a large sign-on letter addressed to the president and members of Congress asking them to complete the task, without getting into specifics, and pass reform, according to Davis.

During the March 23 signing ceremony, Obama said it would take four years to responsibly implement heath care reform. He then listed some of the changes that will take place immediately, including tax breaks to small businesses that provide employee health insurance, tens of thousands of uninsured people with pre-existing conditions able to get coverage, young adults able to stay on their parents' insurance plans until they reach 26 years of age and insurance companies will no longer be able to impose annual and lifetime limits on coverage.

OGR will continue to monitor the health care law's implementation, making sure people are getting the coverage they need and urging Congress to make changes when necessary, said Davis.

The Episcopal Church has stated on numerous occasions that all people should have access to quality affordable health care. Most recently, in July 2009 General Convention passed several health care-related resolutions (C071, D048 and D088) in support of universal access to quality and affordable health care in the United States and called on Congress to pass comprehensive health-care reform this year.

OGR was created by Executive Council in 1979; its mandate is to lobby Congress and the president in response to legislation passed at General Convention.