Churches propping up 'cracked and breaking' US national health care system

By staff writers
September 21, 2007

Churches are stepping in to a 'national health care system cracked and breaking' to care for many of the 47 million Americans who have no health insurance.

The findings come from a groundbreaking survey of more than 6,000 American congregations, which reveals that churches spend a significant amount of time, energy and money in the ministries of health care.

But they also came as President Bush said he would veto bipartisan legislation to reauthorize a State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) providing coverage for uninsured children - bringing condemnation from Christians.

The Congregational Health Ministry Survey, conducted by the National Council of Churches USA (NCC) with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, shows that a majority of churches are ministering to their communities by providing 'health care ministries'. As the number of uninsured Americans reaches 47 million people, congregations are supplying health education and direct health care services. Many are also advocating on behalf of public policy issues related to health care.

According to the survey, about 70 percent of responding churches provide direct health services, with 65 percent offering health education programs within their community. The survey defines direct services as provision of medical care to individuals by trained health care professionals.

“It is not surprising to find that churches see health care as a part of their faith mission and mandate,” said Rev. Dr. Eileen W. Lindner, deputy general secretary of the NCC for Research and Planning, who supervised the survey. “The results of this survey confirm a higher energy for health care than we might have thought, however, and show that effective health care ministries are being developed by congregations of all sizes to meet the urgent needs of their communities.”

NCC leaders say that results of the survey will provide important information for denominational structures, ecumenical agencies, health officials and national policy makers.

“With our national health care system cracked and breaking, this survey shows that churches across the country are doing their best to fill the gaps,” said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, M.D., M.B.A., president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “Faith communities have a long and important tradition of providing health services to the most vulnerable in our nation. Now that one in seven Americans has no insurance, and therefore has difficulty accessing needed health care, the work of our churches has never been more important. The bottom line, however, is that they cannot shoulder this burden alone. The health care crisis is a national problem that needs national, bipartisan solutions.”

The survey released yesterday found that reporting congregations each have an average of 13 health-related activities, with a staggering total of 78,907 health ministry programs being provided.

Most reporting congregations provided health care ministries to members and non-members alike.

The results indicate that 51 percent of responding congregations offer direct financial support to individuals who need help paying their medical bills.

Public policy advocacy was provided by 35 percent of the reporting congregations taking the form of preaching, group discussions, voter education, communications with government and health care providers.

Direct services reported include counselling, 12-Step Programs, emergency medical funding, mental health counselling, and even the professional support of a parish nurse or health minister.

Education programs include providing information on the prevention of disease, maintaining the health of senior citizens, medical programs, and ways to overcome diseases ranging from obesity to HIV/AIDS.

“Local congregations are demonstrating that the volume and scope of health care needs are enormous. They have shown an incredible ability to leverage health care services in extremely creative, innovative and cost-effective ways,” said Rev. Lindner. “They know their communities and they respond to their specific needs.”

But in a public statement the Catholic Health Association said it was 'offended' by President Bush's announcement that he will veto bipartisan legislation to reauthorize the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).

"It is still not too late for the President to change his mind and do what is right for children in this country" the Catholic group said.

"When any child is allowed to go without health care, we as a nation do not meet our moral obligations or show our compassion. Congress has passed responsible, bipartisan legislation that the public widely supports. It is time for President Bush to stop building barriers to children's coverage and instead do what the nation wants him to do-provide children with a healthier, brighter future.

"The Administration is trying to confuse the American people by saying that reauthorizing SCHIP would create government-run health care. That is simply not true. Now that we have ten years of successful experience with SCHIP, we know for certain that it provides coverage for uninsured children."

The full survey can be found online here

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