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Faith leaders urge nation to cover uninsured people


NOTE: A head-and-shoulders photograph of Bishop Melvin Talbert is available.

By Joretta Purdue*

WASHINGTON (UMNS) - Leaders from several faiths have found common ground in their support for the millions of people in the United States who lack health insurance.

"We believe the 41 million Americans who lack health insurance have infinite worth and must be the subject of our collective attention in this hour," reads a letter signed by nine religious leaders and issued March 11. The nine, including a United Methodist, form the National Interfaith Advisory Board for "Cover the Uninsured Week," March 10-16.

The week's activities have included issuing the letter, promoting a national advertising campaign and holding events to encourage people to work together in seeking cooperative solutions to the problem.

Events began with town hall meetings Monday, followed by campus and student events Tuesday, more than 200 health fairs providing services on Wednesday, business and labor groups highlighting the problem on Thursday, and interfaith events Friday through Sunday.

Driving the efforts are concerns for the people who suffer and die prematurely because they are not insured. Forty-one million Americans were uninsured for all of 2001, according to U.S. government data. That is the last year for which statistics are available, said Stuart Schear, an executive with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which provided $7 million in funding for the effort.

The National Council of Churches, which includes the United Methodist Church, is one of more than 150 national organizations sponsoring "Cover the Uninsured Week." Partners include the AARP, AFL-CIO, American Medical Association, American Nurses Association, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Healthcare Leadership Council, Families USA and W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Up to 75 million people were uninsured for more than two months during the 2001-2002 period, Schear added. "That makes it very common. That makes it one out of three of all non-elderly Americans." Faith groups are among those helping enroll children and adults who are eligible for public programs, he said. About 5 million U.S. children are eligible but aren't enrolled, he added.

Schear also said that, on average, 18,000 Americans die prematurely each year because they are uninsured, according to an estimate from the Institute of Medicine. An uninsured woman with breast cancer is 50 percent more likely to die because the cancer is not detected until it is advanced, and likewise men with colon cancer are diagnosed at a later, more deadly stage, he explained. Members of ethnic minority groups are also less likely to be insured.

"By organizing and participating in faith-based events in cities and towns across America, we want to raise awareness of the plight of uninsured Americans," said Bishop Melvin Talbert, ecumenical officer of the United Methodist Council of Bishops and a member of the National Interfaith Advisory Board for "Cover the Uninsured Week." "We are focusing on holding reasoned, nonpartisan discussions about the consequences of not having insurance."

The Rev. Jackson Day, an executive with the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, urges church members to avail themselves of this opportunity to advance the universal health care objectives of the denomination both during and after the week.

"The United Methodist General Conference (the church's highest legislative body) has passed resolution after resolution emphatically affirming the need to achieve health care for all," he said in a message posted on his agency's Web site. This effort is the primary health initiative of the board and underlies all other health-related efforts, "including guarding against erosions of benefits provided by the Medicare and Medicaid programs, and against the erosion of quality and privacy in our health care delivery system."

"Despite our differences in beliefs and practices, and our sometimes distinct differences related to social issues, we are nonetheless united in our concern for the state of health care in America," the advisory board members stated in their letter.

"We recognize that access to health care is a basic right that we all share as fellow human beings, on par with other human rights, such as the right to food and shelter," they wrote. "No one in this great nation should have to suffer because they are uninsured. And no one should pay with their life because they cannot pay for health insurance."

The letter concludes, "May our generation secure health care as our moral legacy to the nation."

Those who signed the "Open Letter to the American People" were Talbert, the Rev. Eileen W. Lindner of the National Council of Churches; Bishop Cecil Bishop of the Congress of Black Churches; Lt. Col Paul Bollwahn of the Salvation Army; Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention; Garland Pohl of the National Association of Diocesan Ecumenical Officers; Hannah Rosenthal of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs; Sayyid M. Syeed of the Islamic Society of North America; and Nancy Wisdo of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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*Purdue is United Methodist News Service's Washington news director.

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