Soaring health costs turn churches into primary care providers

Feb. 17, 2005

A Feature
By Amy Green*

In a downtown neighborhood of Wichita, Kan., where the elderly make their homes alongside the working poor, churches know the need that many residents have for basic health care.

So four years ago, a group of churches joined with local health providers to organize annual health fairs offering inoculations, blood screenings and other services. Some recipients were so grateful they were close to tears.

The fairs take place before the start of the school year and offer a free alternative to the inoculations the health department gives for a small price.

"If you are a family that’s got four or five kids, you can’t afford that, especially if you’re living paycheck to paycheck," says the Rev. Geniese Stanford of New Covenant United Methodist Church, which will host this year’s fair. "They would be almost in tears because they could not have immunized their four or five kids."

With health care costs skyrocketing, churches increasingly are the primary care providers to many sick Americans. Noting Jesus was a healer, ministry leaders say the role fits with their work, since spiritual health so closely depends on well-being of the mind and body.

"The problem has penetrated into the middle class," says Dr. G. Scott Morris, associate pastor of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Memphis, Tenn., and executive director of the ecumenical Church Health Center, which offers medical care to the working uninsured. "Many people do turn to the church when they’re sick and they have nowhere else to go."

Some 27 million Americans were uninsured when Morris founded the center in 1987. Today, that number has ballooned to 45 million. Many work for businesses that save by skipping health benefits or hiring part-time, he says. Others can’t afford their employers’ health plans or suffer from ongoing illnesses insurers refuse to cover.

A United Methodist organization has responded with a prescription drug card offering discounts to all 8 million U.S. members. The cards, launched a year ago with health supply discounter DestinationRx, have been distributed to thousands.

The Rev. Mearle Griffith
Congregations are responding, too, by holding health fairs and clinics with fellow neighborhood churches, hospitals and other medical and religious organizations. The ministries are a good outreach, says the Rev. Mearle Griffith, president and chief executive officer of the United Methodist Association of Health and Welfare Ministries, a network of health care organizations and sponsor of the drug discount card.

"The opportunity to get one’s health checked is something that draws a wide spectrum of people," he says. "It’s a natural way to get people through the doors."

The Church Health Center is the nation’s largest faith-based, not-for-profit health clinic. With a small staff and more than 400 volunteer doctors, the clinic treats patients for free or at a low cost. Many of the doctors treat patients in their own offices. The clinic also offers a wellness center with exercise machines for physical therapy and weight loss regimens, and it provides a low-cost health plan to small businesses that can’t afford one for employees. The clinic in Memphis has been a model for 15 others across the country and is funded by local churches.

Memphis, one of the nation’s poorest big cities, is in a state that—like many—is grappling with escalating health costs. The clinic offers seminars and training to help churches build their own health ministries.

Morris urges churches to step up. 

"From our perspective, this is something no church can ignore," he says. "If you’re not working on a health care ministry, then you’re ignoring what a third of the Gospel is about."

The health fairs started by three churches—West Side United Methodist and two churches that have since merged to form New Covenant United Methodist Church—offer inoculations, blood screenings to check for cholesterol and sugar levels, vision and hearing checks, blood pressure checks and AIDS tests. The fairs are funded by the churches, the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund and the Bishops’ Initiative on Children in Poverty. A local hospital and medical clinic supply health practitioners.

Now the 150-member New Covenant Church is applying for a grant to offer a weekly walk-in clinic with volunteer health practitioners. The immunizations have been especially beneficial to families, Stanford says. Without them, high school students couldn’t play sports and younger children couldn’t go to day care, forcing parents to give up jobs to care for them.

"There was a glimmer of hope for all the people who came in because most people want to take good care of themselves, and it’s a terrible burden not to be able to take care of your children, much less yourself," she says. "Some people are shamed by using public assistance. This way, there was no shame."

*Green is a freelance journalist in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Matt Carlisle, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5153 or

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