Health Care

Close Up: Church Grapples with U.S. Health Care Crisis

By Jane DuBose

Every Monday and Wednesday afternoon, dozens of unemployed, homeless or down-on-their luck people crowd into the small St. Charles, Mo. Volunteers in Medicine clinic. They have a litany of medical problems but one thing in common: no health insurance.

[see caption]
Dr. Earl J. Wipfler sees patient Dina Crites about a problem with her feet at the Volunteers in Medicine Clinic in St. Charles, Mo. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.
The St. Charles clinic is one of 20 Volunteers in Medicine clinics across the United States staffed almost completely with retired medical professionals. Anita Hockett, a registered nurse and United Methodist, is one of them.

“We see a lot of people who are homeless, some people who are sleeping in cars and a lot of people just out of prison,” Hockett says.

The St. Charles clinic is at the epicenter of the nation’s health care crisis. A worsening economy has pushed thousands of people off payrolls and eliminated health care coverage. Many employed people can no longer afford medical insurance, and the system shows signs of ripping apart with Medicaid programs across the nation poised to slash benefits for the poor.

Just in the past six months, unprecedented fissures in the nation’s health care system have prompted United Methodists to voice concerns and raise awareness in these ways:

  • Calling on Congress and church members to support universal health care coverage. “I am trying to get church members thinking about the contradiction between the way things are moving in this country, and our basic faith stance and the position taken by this church,” says the Rev. Jackson Day, a staff executive with the United Methodist Board of Church and Society in Washington. Day says many people are squeamish about the idea of the government offering universal health coverage, even though Medicare and Medicaid are already huge government programs doing just that for a large portion of the United States.
  • Organizing local congregations to raise awareness about the uninsured. Retired United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert is an adviser to Cover the Uninsured Week, a nationwide March 10-16 event designed to publicize the fact that 41.5 million Americans are without health insurance (www.covertheuninsured.org).
  • Developing hands-on solutions, such as the medical clinic in St. Charles. The Council of Bishops’ Initiative on Children and Poverty is considering support for the clinic concept pioneered by Dr. Jack McConnell, a retired physician who started the first such clinic in Hilton Head, S.C., in 1994.
  • Helping educate the uninsured about the options they have available. In Salem, Ore., a health care advocacy group recently received $1.5 million from a grant to help enroll children in the state insurance program. The Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference is involved in the effort.

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A patient makes her way to the Volunteers in Medicine Clinic, housed in the basement of the Oasis of Love Church in St. Charles, Mo. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.
For two decades, United Methodists have supported the concept of health care services for everyone, but only recently has the issue been kicked to the forefront, Day says.

Reasons include the rising unemployment rate and accompanying uninsured rate. The U.S. Census Bureau says 1.4 million Americans lost their health insurance last year, the largest single-year jump in more than a decade.

Meanwhile, health care spending is increasing sharply. In 2001, spending rose 8.7 percent, to $1.4 trillion, and accounted for 14 percent of the total U.S. economy, according to a government report published in the journal Health Affairs. Prescription drugs are the fastest-growing category of health spending, accounting for $140.6 billion in 2001, up 15.7 percent from the prior year.

The United Methodist Church is struggling with coverage issues like everyone else. For example, health care costs for the 750 employees of the Detroit Annual (regional) Conference have risen by 75 percent in the past three years, says Anna Morford, conference treasurer.

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Maureen Whitsett, a registered nurse serving the Volunteers in Medicine Clinic in St. Charles, Mo., sees patient Rick Schulz. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.
Taken together, the mounting problems make health care bills a legislative priority for United Methodists, says Jaydee Hanson, with the Board of Church and Society. In general, the church supports bills that provide the broadest level of coverage, he says. The church’s Book of Resolutions affirms the right of individuals to have access to all types of health care.

In Hilton Head, McConnell decided not to wait on the government for a health care solution. His idea for providing free local medical care led to the first Volunteers in Medicine clinic in 1994. He believes the problem of the uninsured could be solved if at least two-thirds of the nation’s 150,000 retired physicians agreed to provide some free care each week.

Clinics are continuing to open around the country. “I don’t know of a solution anywhere close to as spiritual as this one,” McConnell says. “What’s better than giving services to those Jesus said were the most important? These are the ones who come to us.”

DuBose is a free-lance writer in Nashville, Tenn.

 


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