“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own…. Therefore honor God with your body.” 1 Cor. 6:19-20
It is well known that blacks live sicker and die younger than any other racial group. Look no farther than the church with the pastor battling hypertension and diabetes or the congregation with several obese members sitting in the pews. It would seem that the black church in America would be the leading ally supporting the nation’s first black president in the debate over access to affordable healthcare. It would seem that the black church would lead the way toward healthier eating and living.
Could it be that black church culture is leading us astray?
I thought about this during a recent conference in Baltimore on black global health. The International Conference on Health in the African Diaspora, hosted by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Disparities Solutions, brought together healthcare professionals and researchers, from across the Western Hemisphere to discuss common health problems among the descendants of African slaves. Black Arts Movement icon Sonia Sanchez set the tone as the keynote speaker July 4, inspiring the crowd with a special poem for the occasion. The award-winning author participated throughout the weeklong conference.
Listening to a sister from Brazil and a brother from Peru discuss high rates of obesity, diabetes, infant deaths and the spread of HIV/AIDS among blacks in their countries sounded like the health crisis of black New York, Chicago, or the Mississippi Delta. Modern racism and the legacy of slavery haunt all of us. Participants also shared solutions and pledged to work together. In fact, according to Dr. Thomas LaVeist, a book and curriculum addressing these health themes are being created for the public and for high school and college educators. Thomas, who happens to be my brother, directs the Hopkins center and is the mastermind behind the conference, which is scheduled to take place every two years.
Solutions are basically what government and institutions can do to end racism and ensure all people have access to quality affordable healthcare and what blacks can do themselves to care for their “temples of the Holy Spirit.”
The black church should be more outspoken in support of increased access to quality affordable care. Our cousins from Canada and Central and South America, who for the most part receive varying degrees well-executed and poorly-executed universal healthcare, are puzzled as to why we richer Americans are debating what the rest of the industrialized world has long settled — that healthcare access is a God-given human right, not a privilege to be determined by profit-seeking private insurance companies.
After the conference, Thomas told me that the Catholic Church (obviously many Catholics are also black) has been the most vocal Christians on healthcare, mainly around the debate on whether Catholic organizations should be mandated to support abortions for employees (some evangelical Protestant organizations have recently joined that fight, too). Thomas suggested the traditional black church denominations could find their unified voice by calling for all Americans to be insured (Obama’s Affordable Care Act would still leave 20 million people uninsured). However, regardless of what the government does, black churches should lead by example with healthier eating and living, he said.
BAD FOR THE SOUL? Black churches are routinely feeding their people unhealthy soul food staples such as fried chicken and macaroni and cheese. Is that biblical?
“Black church culture is out of alignment with some biblical teachings, particularly when it comes to how we eat,” my brother said. “Church culture has got us drinking Kool-Aid, eating white bread, fried chicken, large servings of macaroni and cheese and collard greens drenched with salty hog maws (foods that are high in sugar, salt, calories, and carbohydrates that trigger health problems). We’re eating this in the church basement at dinner and at church conventions! Meanwhile, the Bible teaches against gluttony.”
Don’t judge or condemn those who are obese, but encourage and show everyone how to eat healthy, Thomas added. He cited Pastor Michael Minor of Oak Hill Baptist Church in the Mississippi Delta as pushing the healthy eating message that all black churches should adopt. The Delta is one of America’s poorest areas and leads the nation in obesity, diabetes, and heart disease rates. In 2011, Pastor Minor, known as “the Southern pastor who banned fried chicken in his church,” banished all unhealthy foods and insisted soul food meals be prepared in healthier ways; many of his members are losing weight and improving their overall health. Other churches across the country such as, First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, are on similar missions.
Ask yourself, when it comes to health, what is the black church best known for?
What might the state of black health in America (and the African diaspora) be if your answer was healthy eating and living?
On Sunday evening as I was relaxing after dinner, my gallbladder violently rebelled against the meal (scrambled eggs and sautéed zucchini). This would not be worth writing about, except that, for the first time in my adult life, I don’t have health insurance. When, late last year, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Jersey informed me that my $600+ per month individual plan rate would increase to $753 (just for me), I knew I was done. My husband is retired with a work-related medical disability, you see, and we were fast approaching financial insolvency as we awaited the resolution of his decade-old workers’ compensation case. (That’s a story worth telling about the kinds of people who can outlast insurance companies in court, but one for another day.)
As I was doubled over in pain and retching in my bathroom, I begged God for relief so that I wouldn’t have to go to the emergency room and possibly have a surgery that would plunge my family into thousands of dollars worth of debt. I thought about the millions of people who have lived this reality for years and felt ashamed of myself for having been so indifferent to their plight for so long. God answered my prayer eventually, but I woke up Monday morning dry heaving from the taste of bile rising in my throat.
I made an appointment with my primary care physician, hoping he would give me the green light to delay the surgery that had been recommended last year until August, when I’ll be eligible for NJ Protect, a federally subsidized health insurance plan for New Jersey residents who have pre-existing conditions, but who haven’t had health insurance for at least six consecutive months. The doctor did give me the green light to wait, along with dietary and homeopathic recommendations and a prescription in case I have another attack. For this, I paid $100.
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Before he came into the room, however, I told his nurse that I would need him to fill out a form for NJ Protect affirming that I have a pre-existing condition. She began grilling me about my situation. “Can’t you get a job?” she asked. “I have a job. I’m an independent journalist,” I said. She wanted to know how I get paid. God only knows why I submitted to this inquest, but I told her I have contracts for steady work, but given the state of journalism (especially since fall 2008 when I moved from California back to New Jersey and began job hunting), it doesn’t matter how hard or much I work, I will never be able to afford $753-a-month for health insurance. I didn’t bother telling her about my supplementary work in catering or substitute teaching, and I didn’t tell her that I’d just been tapped for a coveted vocational school teaching job that I had to decline because of the kind of senseless bureaucratic regulations that many, including me, fear “Obamacare” will usher in.
Her rudeness got me thinking though. What is it, I wonder, about my free-market loving friends that makes them willing to suggest, even by default, that entrepreneurs and small business owners like me will be a drain on our national resources or that we have some sort of moral obligation to take corporate jobs in order to be deserving of affordable health care? I’m not speaking of her, of course, but of the plethora of conservative pundits who rail incessantly against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in the name of freedom. I don’t get it. Are they saying I shouldn’t be free to choose the kind of work that best suits me, my God-given temperament, and the needs of my family? Or that if I do, tough luck when I get sick? If it weren’t for the exorbitant cost of health care, I’d be earning enough income right now to meet my family’s modest financial needs. We can even manage the subsidized plan at $369-a-month now that my husband’s case has settled, but that’s a function of the ACA, so they’d like to deny me that.
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On Tuesday, someone asked me what I thought of the Supreme Court ruling on the ACA. I took a deep breath and said I was glad it wasn’t struck down, because I need affordable health insurance sooner rather than later and the ACA is the engine that will give it to me.
I probably would have opposed it a decade ago when my husband was earning a six-figure income in home improvement sales and we were owners of an apartment building in addition to our own home. But then my husband’s back gave out and he spent several years trying to do other kinds of work before he was forced to retire at age 47. He now lives in crippling pain every day and takes care of the house. His medical expenses will be covered for the rest of his life through Medicare, a supplementary plan that we pay for, and workers’ comp. He’s eligible, in part, for these benefits because he worked outside the home and was injured at work, while I mostly stayed home and raised children for 20 years.
So, what I’d also like to know is why the family values crowd thinks it’s okay to abandon women like me, who bought into their message and eschewed careers, but then had to re-enter the workforce because of death, divorce, or disability without the benefit of a strong work history? Is this really how they want to repay us? You know, the uninsured mothers who serve as teachers’ aides in their children’s classrooms, or bring them their salad at The Cheesecake Factory, or wipe their aging parents’ bottoms so they don’t have to?
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And, what about my fellow pro-lifers? All they seem concerned about when it comes to the ACA is the contraception mandate. Don’t they care about women like me who dropped out of college to have our babies instead of aborting them because we heard and believed their message, but then are forever playing catch up career-wise? Don’t they owe us some level of fidelity for living out what they merely preach? Or did we only matter to them when our stories affirmed their cost-free convictions?
These are serious questions, not accusations. A freedom-loving, family values, pro-life writer is asking them.
Now, I understand that one reason an individual health insurance plan is so expensive in New Jersey is because insurers here are not permitted to discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions and insuring everybody drives up costs. But, I thank God New Jersey is ahead of the curve in this regard. In California, I could not purchase insurance for my son after he was routinely kicked off our family plan as a young adult and then diagnosed with a debilitating, uninsurable condition.
He eventually got well with the help of a generous doctor who treated him on the cheap and a county health service that he still uses because so few specialists take his lousy $190-a-month individual plan. You see, he works for a non-profit organization as a warehouse supervisor, but like many employers, his employer hires most of its workforce for just under the number of hours at which employer-delivered health insurance is mandatory. I know what “government” care looks like and it isn’t pretty, but it’s something and I thank God for it.
I frequently hear insured people say that if the ACA survives, it will mean they won’t have access to timely medical care. This tells me they not only believe they have a right to health care, but that they have a right to the prompt delivery thereof. And yet, they don’t seem to think people like me and my son have any right to it at all. Well, I disagree with them. I need heathcare reform and I think I deserve it, not from “the government,” but from the society that my family and I have contributed to and served for most of our lives. I’m not saying Obamacare is the answer. I’m only saying that we need to solve this problem and the uncaring rhetoric of my conservative friends is speaking so loudly that I’m finding it difficult to hear anything else they’re saying about healthcare reform.
*Please note: an editorial change has been made to this article.
As the U.S. Supreme Court wrestles with the constitutionality of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, and especially the “individual mandate” provision requiring every capable American citizen to buy health insurance, many people continue to frame the debate as one of individual rights versus socialized medicine. They view a law requiring all citizens to buy insurance as a violation of fundamental American freedoms. I’d suggest the opposite: requiring all Americans to own health insurance is actually a demonstration of American patriotism and solidarity.
Allow me to explain.
Guess how many states today have laws that REQUIRE citizens TO BUY insurance? FIFTY. That’s right, folks. Every single one of them. Red states as well as Blue states require citizens to buy insurance. To be more specific, every single state requires citizens who drive motor vehicles to buy liability insurance to cover any damage they might inflict.
Now of course this law doesn’t apply to everyone. There are two primary classes of people who do not have to buy automobile liability insurance. Those who don’t drive. And those who can prove financial responsibility to cover any damage they might cause up to a certain limit.
The rationale behind these laws requiring citizens to buy liability insurance is simple. There is a significant risk that anyone who drives a motor vehicle may, over the course of their lifetime, cause an accident which causes damage to the property or bodies of others. There is a strong societal interest in making sure that those so injured can be compensated for their losses. You cannot buy insurance to cover an injury after you cause it. You have to have the insurance ahead of time. The insurance covers the damages caused by negligent drivers. Of course, this cost is paid for by all of the non-negligent drivers who pay their premiums every month without causing any damage. Hence, the requirement that ALL drivers, negligent as well as careful, carry liability insurance.
Those of us who live on planet Earth are also at significant risk of needing medical treatment at some point in our lives. We may contract a disease, be injured as the result of an accident, or develop some other illness or chronic condition — sometimes as the result of our own choices, sometimes not. There is a strong societal interest in making sure that those who need medical treatment can afford treatment for those illnesses. There is also a strong societal interest in making sure that those who provide medical treatment are compensated for having done so.
Health insurance, like any other form of insurance, only works if there is a shared assumption of the risk. Insurance companies rely on actuarial tables to assess the risk and base their rates accordingly (after factoring in a healthy profit, of course). Healthy people have to pay into the program so that sick people are covered. Previously, insurance companies could refuse coverage or charge significantly higher rates for people with pre-existing medical conditions. The current legislation seeks to prevent that by spreading the risk around to all citizens.
Now some may argue that health insurance is different than auto insurance because only people who drive motor vehicles have to purchase insurance. Granted that is true, mandatory health insurance should only be required of citizens who might be expected to contract, carry, pass on, or suffer from a medical condition, or sustain an injury requiring medical treatment. Of course, since I’ve yet to meet another human being who doesn’t fit that profile, I think it’s safe to say it applies to everyone. All of us are vulnerable to physical injury and ailments. Only corpses are not at risk of needing health care.
For those who still think the individual mandate is a violation of one’s individual freedom, another option would be an opt-out provision. To be effective, this kind of provision would need to come with the understanding that those who opt out are not entitled to receive any medical-care treatment that they haven’t paid for prior to the administration of the treatment. Kind of like buying broccoli at the grocery store — you can’t take it home and eat it until you’ve paid for it. If you opt out and don’t have the money when a health issue hits, you’ll get no EMT care, no ambulance ride, no appendectomy, no CPR, no emergency room care, no cancer treatment, no life-saving procedures.
Nada. Zip. Nothing.
If you think this is a cruel approach to health care — leaving people to suffer or die who can’t afford treatment — I agree with you. But what justification for entitlement to treatment can people give who, given the chance to share the risk with the rest of us, REFUSE to do so?
Mandatory health insurance is PATRIOTIC. It exemplifies the highest ideals of the American public — a willingness to stand up with our fellow citizens against threats against any of us. That means patriotic citizens who are willing to fight and die in the military against threats to the rights and freedoms from our enemies. And it means patriotic citizens being willing to pay for our fair share to spread the risk around, standing together against threats to our health. We don’t want our fellow citizens to be denied health insurance by insurance companies because they have pre-existing medical conditions, or to be charged so much they can’t afford it. We don’t want our fellow citizens losing their homes because of catastrophic illness. We don’t want our fellow citizens buried in debt which they can never repay because of some medical misfortune. We’ve got each other’s backs. That’s how we roll.
May God bless America, and may every American citizen be willing to shoulder his or her fair share of the risk to provide medical care for all, even if it means the government requiring us to buy it.
Wow. This is a heartbreaking, eye-opening story that reveals the extreme struggles faced by a lot of people who cannot afford health-care coverage in the midst of this economic downturn.
I’m a registered Republican. I didn’t vote for Barack Obama. I believe in free-market enterprise. I like smaller government. There, I said it. It’s out!
That said, I think government plays essential roles in any civilized society. Defense, interstate highways, basic education to name a few. And there is one more role I would add to the list. Health care!
I know we have the most advanced medical treatment in the world — and the most expensive. I wouldn’t want to see it compromised. But I have to admit that something is wrong with the picture when the working poor and a sizable portion of the middle class don’t have access to these benefits. I am coming to believe what the rest of the modern world has concluded — that health care is a basic human right. To be last in line of industrialized nations to provide medical treatment for all our citizens is not something I am proud of.
I like government close to home. That’s one reason I’m a Republican. But I also have to admit that Social Security has served us fairly well, and I have no real complaints about how my Medicare is working. Oh, yes, the bureaucratic paperwork is aggravating and I hate talking to a computerized recording, but I guess that’s not too different from the way most large corporations function these days.
I seriously doubt that health-care reform can be accomplished without raising our taxes, but, frankly, that’s one of the taxes I wouldn’t mind paying. Compared to the costly wars we have funded recently, health care seems like a rather redemptive investment.
Do I like what Obama is proposing? Actually, I do. While I wouldn’t want a government takeover of our health-care system, I do see the value in a system that insures every citizens’ access to competent medical treatment.
Obviously it’s a very complex issue. And I’d be the first to acknowledge my ignorance in many of the complicated realities of this confusing medical world. I do know, however, that it makes no sense to see my low-income neighbors go to the hospital emergency room for ailments that could be treated inexpensively in a community clinic. And I do know from personal experience that physicians prescribe expensive and unnecessary procedures just to protect themselves from lawsuits. I guess these are a couple of the reasons why they say the system is broken.
I like competition. That’s one reason I like what Obama is proposing. I think I’m ready to let the government give health care a try. Our free-enterprise approach, while propelling us to the top spot in medical advances, has failed to figure out a system that shares the benefits with the whole of society. And that’s a justice issue.
Say what you will about Obama, on this one I believe he’s on the right side. We may disagree strongly about his politics and his methods, but his push to see that all citizens are being rightly cared for — especially the poor — is a push in the right direction.
And I’m still a Republican.