Thursday, June 25, 2009

Spirituality and Health Care

Stanley Reimer walked his wife Criste to the balcony of their sixth story apartment, kissed her goodbye and helped her over the edge to her death. Criste was at her wit’s end with unresolved health issues. Stanley couldn’t come up with $800 a week to buy her medications. They had no insurance. They saw no options.

America is the only industrialized country in the world that doesn’t have a universal health care system. The death of Criste Reimer is a blight on the conscience of a nation that fails to provide for people at a time of need.

60% of bankruptcy cases in the United States are related to health care debts and three quarters of these bankruptcy filings are from people who have insurance. America spends more money on health care than any other nation, and yet has a low world ranking in life expectancy, infant mortality, cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

For the richest nation in the world to be running a broken health care system that abandons people at a time of need is what I would call a spiritual crisis.

What would a spiritual perspective on health care include?

1. People have diseases; people are not their disease. Any system, whether it’s a religious, health or education system, that treats people as nothing more than their conditions, is likely to lack compassion. The recognition that people are more than their disease leads to a holistic approach that includes personal, social and financial considerations.

2. Systems exist to serve people rather than the other way around. People own the systems, rather than the systems owning the people. When Jonas Salk invented the vaccine for polio, he was asked, “Who owns the vaccine for polio?” His answer was, “The people own the vaccine. Who else could own it but the people? Who owns the sun?” Systems exist to serve people, not primarily to make profit from people.

3. Are the most vulnerable people being protected by the system? Wisdom traditions have often emphasized that societies are ultimately judged by their treatment of the most vulnerable: children, those with special needs, the poor and the elderly.

4. How inclusive is the health care system? Does it have room for all? There is a beautiful Hasidic story about Rabbi Raphael of Bershad, who invited a group of his disciples to ride in his coach. “But there is not enough room!” a disciple cried out, “The rebbe will be crowded.” The master replied, “Then we shall have to love each other more. If we love each other more, there will be room for us all.”

No system is perfect. A universal health care system seems to best capture the spiritual ideals of compassion, holistic care, protection for the most vulnerable and service before profits. A universal health care system has room for all; affordable health care for every citizen, especially children, and a “hardship waiver” for the poor. Even if it means raising taxes to pay for a universal system, it should be done. The extra taxes are a reminder that we are all responsible for each other.

What do you think? What system best represents your spiritual ideals?