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Interfaith Voices: MLK's act of faith on health care

Interfaith Voices: MLK's act of faith on health care

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My two passions are working to oppose war through Veterans For Peace and promoting universal health care through Health Care for All Oregon. I do outreach for HCAO within the faith community of Albany and around the state, trying to convince others that we need to create a system that provides care based on need rather than ability to pay. I am frequently asked, “Isn’t that a political issue?” The short answer is yes and no. The longer answer is the subject of this essay.

Reverend King once said: “A nation that year after year continues to spend more on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.” He also said: “Of all the forms of injustice, inequality in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” Dr. King’s faith drove him to oppose racism, poverty, and war, which he recognized are intimately intertwined. Though he realized addressing these problems would involve political action, he knew it was his spiritual duty to speak out.

Working for social change involves politics, but it is our duty to do so if we profess to care for others as we would want them to care for us. We must remember the lesson of the good Samaritan. Like the traveler who he helped, anyone can fall victim to illness or injury. People of good conscience cannot ignore their suffering when they can help.

Losing access to health care can happen to almost anyone under 65. The economic disaster brought on by the pandemic has made clear that having a job does not assure you can get care when you need it. The great majority of those without insurance are employed, often as essential workers. They just don’t make enough to afford insurance. Even if they can afford the premiums, they often cannot pay the out-of-pocket costs, so they forego needed care. Millions more have fallen through this crack in the system in the time of COVID.

Over 40,000 Americans die needlessly every year for lack of access to health care. Over 60% of all bankruptcies are primarily due to medical bills. One wonders why anyone who claims to have faith should be more concerned about the miniscule chance that any nation would dare to attack America than the fact that our fellow citizens are dying of treatable disease.

In a representative democracy, the government’s actions should reflect the values of its citizens. When it does not, it is the duty of those citizens to push for change. In a democracy, we cannot escape responsibility for the actions of our government. When we spend trillions of dollars on wars without end, it is the height of hypocrisy to say that Americans must fend for themselves if they get sick and go bankrupt if they cannot afford medical bills.

It took political action by people of faith to end slavery, achieve (nominal) equal rights under the law and to make war illegal (though most don’t know it, after the carnage of WWI, a mass movement led by people of faith resulted in the signing of the Kellogg-Brian Treaty outlawing war). It will take political action to create a system of universal health care and to stop endless war. King died only months after his 1967 Riverside speech in New York City opposing the war in Vietnam. In it, he made the connection between war, poverty and racism in a way that alarmed other leaders in the civil rights movement, who feared the political consequences. To honor his sacrifice, we must do the hard work of pushing our government to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice.

Staggenborg, a retired Veterans Affairs psychiatrist living in Albany, is President of the Linus Pauling Chapter of Veterans For Peace and a co-convener of the HCAO Faith Caucus.

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