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Anyone Want to Talk About Health Care?

It’s time for Christian leaders to tackle the issue.

In an editorial published last Sunday, The New York Times explored what it called "the worst long-term fiscal crisis facing the nation" - rising health care costs. The piece provided a helpful survey of causes and possible solutions, but no silver bullet. As the editorial concluded, "A wide range of contributing factors needs to be tackled simultaneously, with no guarantee they will have a substantial impact any time soon."

The most arresting part of the piece was its summary of the United States' health care dilemma, laid out in the opening paragraphs:

The relentless, decades-long rise in the cost of health care has left many Americans struggling to pay their medical bills. Workers complain that they cannot afford high premiums for health insurance. Patients forgo recommended care rather than pay the out-of-pocket costs. Employers are cutting back or eliminating health benefits, forcing millions more people into the ranks of the uninsured. And state and federal governments strain to meet the expanding costs of public programs like Medicaid and Medicare.

Health care costs are far higher in the United States than in any other advanced nation, whether measured in total dollars spent, as a percentage of the economy, or on a per capita basis. And health costs here have been rising significantly faster than the overall economy or personal incomes for more than 40 years, a trend that cannot continue forever.

Indeed, rising health care costs have become a burden not just for the working poor, but for many middle-class Americans. It's an issue that's already on the minds of voters - in a New York Times-CBS News poll, Iowa Democrats likely to attend the January 3 caucuses called it their top priority - and it's going to gain more public attention as the presidential campaigns continue. Democratic candidates will make sure of that.

"I don't think you can run for president today without having a universal health care plan that covers everybody," Hillary Clinton said recently, "because we want to go into a general election with that issue against the Republicans."

That Democrats plan to make health care reform a major part of their platform in 2008 - and that Republicans will be forced to respond - is unsurprising, perhaps. But what is surprising is how little evangelical Christian leaders have said about the issue.

In March, the president of the Southern Baptists' Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Richard Land, supported a call to re-authorize and expand the federally funded State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) so that every child in America could have health coverage - a proposal that seemed relatively uncontroversial, at least until President Bush opposed SCHIP's expansion on the contention that it would move middle-class children off of private coverage and onto government coverage.

The social-action ministry Sojourners has also called for health care reform, but its reach among evangelicals is limited. Why aren't more Christian leaders speaking up?

In the last several years, the National Association of Evangelicals has denounced torture and mistreatment of India's Dalits. It has also cautiously supported creation care and released a comprehensive public policy statement entitled, "For the Health of the Nation." The statement lists such areas of concern as freedom of religion and conscience, protection for families and children, protection of all human life, compassion and justice for the poor, global human rights, the pursuit of peace and restraint of violence, and biblically based creation care. Ironically, for a document called "For the Health of the Nation," it makes only passing mention of health care. Yet the average American is more immediately affected by rising health care costs than by, say, whether or not their community recycles.

No doubt evangelicals are as split on health care reform as they are on many other issues. But if we want to present a fully orbed vision for public policy, then we need to start engaging more deeply with the issue of affordable, adequate medical care - and soon. A community grounded in God's Word and dedicated to proclaiming the One who came to save the sick, the poor, and the needy ought to have something to contribute to the rising discussion.

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