As I was scanning my newsfeed recently, I discovered that America’s health care crisis is 50 years old. My first thought: I can’t care about that. I’m in the throes of my own health crisis, living daily with the uncertainty of being one name on a national computer registry of more than 100,000 people who need a kidney transplant.
For five years I have waited, not always patiently, but always with fear. Like every person who needs a transplanted organ, I am trying to navigate my way through this agonizingly frustrating, expensive and patently unfair system we call healthcare.
And I’m one of the lucky ones.
What I have discovered through these years of chronic illness is that health care for America’s citizens is more than a political and economic issue; it is a profoundly moral and ethical issue. It impacts my theology and my call to ministry. It is a justice issue, and years ago, I responded to God’s call to do justice. God’s call to justice is more than my personal call. It is a call that goes deep and far, and it compels Baptists and other Christians to discern how to bring the gospel’s imperatives of compassion to bear on this crisis.
“Like every person who needs a transplanted organ, I am trying to navigate my way through this agonizingly frustrating, expensive and patently unfair system we call healthcare.”
Yes, I constantly ask myself why I didn’t care more, learn more, speak out more and protest more before I was enmeshed in my own life-and-death drama. And care, not simply as an American citizen, but as a person called to follow the way of Jesus.
I care now. And I think America’s faith communities should care too.
I was diagnosed with end stage kidney disease in 2014. Immediately, I was placed on dialysis. It didn’t take long to learn that daily dialysis, with the physician and nursing care that accompanies it, is billed at about $100,000 each month. And, no, I did not include an extra zero in that figure.
From the vantage point of chronic illness, I began to listen more closely to those who were unpacking the complex health care truths that include higher costs for hospital care, astronomical costs for home care and untenable increases in the cost of prescription drugs.
Internationally recognized health care expert and author of Demanding Medical Excellence, Michael L. Millenson, writes: “We are now in the fiftieth year of the official U.S. health care crisis.” That is an ominous reality, but one that is based upon empirical evidence.
This crisis was officially acknowledged on July 10, 1969, when President Richard Nixon, in a briefing on the nation’s health system, said, “We face a massive crisis in this area. Without prompt . . . action, we will have a breakdown in our medical care system.”
Half a century later, we are still dealing with a very real health care crisis that has definite implications for people of faith and for the Church. In every congregation, there are persons who are ill, including those who suffer from a chronic illness and those trying to cope with a life-threatening illness.
Why should this matter to communities of faith and their pastoral leaders? As a start, consider these facts:
- About 75 percent of Americans over 65 live with multiple chronic health conditions, ranging from diabetes to dementia.
- A recent Gallup poll revealed that three in ten Americans forgo or deter treatment due to the high cost of care.
- 28 million Americans remain uninsured, and tens of millions who have coverage are unable to afford care because of high cost-sharing requirements.
That’s the empirical data snapshot. What is more telling is the picture of the very real suffering of chronic illness. I entered that picture when I was diagnosed with an incurable disease. That unexpected diagnosis changed my life in multiple ways. One of those life changes was concern about the cost of my medical care and prescription medications.
“We continue, by our inaction, to neglect the needs of suffering persons in our congregations who are ill and who also endure severe financial hardship.”
Case in point: once I receive a kidney transplant, I must take immunosuppressant drugs for life at a cost of $10,000 to $14,000 per year.
I have been on the national transplant list for five years. Out of fear, I have said “no” to previous opportunities for a transplant. Now, my nephrologist insists that a transplant is the only logical remedy. “Dialysis is not a cure,” he says. “The transplant may give you 10 more years of life.” He went further: “If you stop dialysis, you will die in about two weeks.”
This pronouncement got my attention, to be sure, and I began to research more thoroughly the facts of my disease and the level of health care available to me. The human part of this nation’s health care crisis is the possibility that medical care is just too expensive for many people. For them, the suffering of the disease process itself is almost dwarfed by the worry about how to cover unreasonable medical costs.
I am in the “very fortunate” category of patients who are covered by insurance, but who still have many uncovered health care expenses. Yet my story is dramatically different from those of 28 million of my brothers and sisters who are uninsured.
I wonder. Could it be that those of us with insurance simply don’t care very much about those without it? Therein lies the discomfort for the people of God, a discomfort we must surely own. We live and work and worship with both the “haves” and “have nots.” In our congregations, there are persons suffering illness who simply cannot afford the cost of health insurance, others who struggle to pay the insurance premiums or co-pays and still others who cannot afford to purchase the medications they need.
Why does this matter to ministers who shepherd congregations? Why does it matter to congregants who share a faith with persons who are ill and are also called to care for those outside the walls of the church? It matters because pastoral care includes spiritual, emotional and physical well-being. It matters because every follower of Jesus feels compassion for persons who suffer. It matters because of the words of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of Matthew: “I was sick and you took care of me.”
We have read it, recited it, taught it and preached it. Yet we continue, by our inaction, to neglect the needs of suffering persons in our congregations who are ill and who also endure severe financial hardship. What do we do about it?
“Our national health care crisis should matter to every faith community.”
Beyond fundraising campaigns, soirées and other one-time remedies, I suggest as a part of our pastoral care for those among us who are ill (and their families) that churches offer training for a group of mentors who can help explain the complex web of benefits through Medicare, Medicaid and supplemental insurance. Churches might devise a program that ensures we do not forget those who are ill and that we help them feel they are still a part of the faith community. Along with the wonderful food that we’re accustomed to taking to those who are ill, perhaps they would enjoy a recorded sermon, a recorded Sunday school class, and, of course, the music of worship.
In the end, though, a program is just a program. Although programs help discipline us to respond to suffering, they do not replace presence – the presence of an afternoon visit, a phone call or an offering of prayer.
One of my favorite authors, Joseph B. Clower Jr., gives depth and heart to these and other ideas.
If, then, fellowship with the living Christ is real, it is inevitably fellowship with suffering. . . The Church is Christ’s Body. Christ clothes himself in the Church’s humanity. The Church is Christ’s continuing incarnation . . . If the Church will give His Spirit free course in her life, she cannot escape suffering. If the indwelling Christ is not confined, then the Church’s eyes flow with his tears, her heart is moved with His compassion, her hands are coarsened with his labor, her feel are wearied with his walking among [people].
I have suffered an irreversible illness for five years. There is no cure, only treatments. When that reality really sunk in, when I allowed the depth of suffering to go heart-deep in me, I realized how desperately I needed my faith community. They fed me and visited me. They prayed for me without ceasing. They helped me feel as if I was still a part of the community. They cheered me on when my spirits were low. They told me the old, old stories of our faith until faith began to rise up in me. Without their ministry of care, my suffering would have been intolerable.
That’s why our national health care crisis should matter to every faith community.