U.S. Health Secretary, religious leaders discuss health care reform's early implementation

January 26, 2011

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius hosted a telephone conference Jan. 27 with community and religious leaders from across the nation, including Diocese of West Missouri Bishop Barry R. Howe, to discuss the Obama administration's views on how the Affordable Care Act – aka the health care act -- is helping Americans gain more freedom and control in their health care choices.

"Over the last 10 months as we've implemented the health care act, we've really tried to work hand-in-hand with partners in states and communities to not only deliver new benefits but to make sure community members know how to access benefits, particularly in our most vulnerable populations," Sebelius said during the call.

"Among our most effective and determined partners are faith and community leaders. No one knows the needs of their communities better than ministers, rabbis, imams and other faith and community partners," she added. "They are the ones who families turn to when they need assistance and support, and they do so much day in and day out to link their members to services that are available. Often faith and community leaders have seen the consequences of a health care system that has failed way too many Americans. So as we build a stronger, more prosperous country we need to be able to count on their leadership."

Sebelius talked about how preliminary implementation of the law has helped small businesses lower their costs, provided more affordable prescription drug options for seniors, helped children gain access to health care regardless of pre-existing conditions and allowed young adults to stay on their parents' health care plans.

Health care reform has been a flashpoint with some Americans since President Barack Obama made it his domestic policy priority. On Jan. 19, as promised by Republicans in the leadup to the November 2010 mid-term elections, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 245 to 189, with three Democrats joining with Republicans, to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Sebelius reiterated that in the president's State of the Union address Jan. 25, Obama said he would be willing to work with anyone to improve or fix the legislation.

"But what we can't afford to do is refight the battles of the last two years and return to the past; return to a broken system whose consequences our faith leaders saw each and every day," Sebelius said. "Ten months after the president signed a new health law, the reforms are already making a difference in American's lives. In the months and years ahead we have a lot of work cut out for us and we'll continue to count on our great partners in faith and community leaders for their perspective, their outreach and determination."

Following Sebelius's remarks, the religious and community leaders offered personal stories and stories from their parishes and communities to illustrate how health care reform is working among them.

In his remarks, Howe, who serves as chairman of the board of St. Luke's Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, and also on the board of St. Luke's Health System, an 11-hospital system, said that the health care legislation, when fully implemented, will take some of the financial burden off non-profit, faith-based hospitals and institutions.

"We are committed to carrying for all who come through the doors of our hospitals ... and when people cannot get insurance coverage, or are cut off from traditional ways of treatment through going to doctors, they end up using the emergency room of the hospital as their place of primary care," he said, adding that the hospitals are forced to absorb the costs of most of this "charity care" to the sum of millions of dollars annually.

"When the full changes of the affordable care act are in place this will certainly help stop this revolving door of people who need basic health care using what has been their last resort: the emergency room of hospitals. And they will have an opportunity to visit doctors and get care in the traditional way that many of us are able to do," Howe said.

In July 2009, the Episcopal Church's 76th General Convention in 2009, via Resolution C071 called for elected officials at all levels of government in the United States to "establish a system to provide basic health care to all."

In March, the church's Standing Commission on Health will host a conference in Baltimore, Maryland, aimed at spreading the message about how health care changes are going to support, encourage and provide better care, Howe said.

"It is very important for us to lead in sharing for our church the affirmation of health care reform and how health benefits are improving the lives of people and protecting all of our citizens," said Howe, who has served on the commission.

Also on the Jan. 27 call were the Rev. Joel Hunter, senior pastor of Northland Church in Longwood, Florida; the Rev. Linda Hanna Walling, director of the Cleveland, Ohio-based Faithful Reform in Health Care, a national interfaith organization; Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman of Temple Israel in Minneapolis, Minnesota; Bishop Roy Dixon, pastor of Faith Chapel Church of God in Christ in San Diego, California, and a member of the PICO board of directors (PICO, or People Improving Communities through Organizing, is a national network of faith-based community organizations); and Reena Singh, field coordinator for Community Catalyst, a national health care reform advocacy group.

Hunter shared how his granddaughter recently died of brain cancer and how he couldn't imagine how much financial ruin would have added to that grief. Walling talked about how the Affordable Care Act allowed her 20-something parish secretary to remain on her parents' health insurance plan. Dixon talked about mobilizing leaders and organizing communities to stand up in defense of the act.

Hunter put it this way: "Being a pastor like being a parent, you are only doing [as well as] the most vulnerable family member."

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