Bennet engages religious leaders in health-care debate

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U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (Photo courtesy Denver Public Schools)

As members of Congress return to their states for the July Fourth recess, national health care reform, one of the thorniest of the thorny legislative initiatives lawmakers are grappling with this term, brought U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet to a Thursday night discussion hosted by Rev. Bill Calhoun at Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church in Denver. The meeting was part of a campaign being waged by Calhoun and a network of more than 600 religious leaders, who are demanding that policy presently being drafted in Washington, D.C., deliver affordable coverage for all Americans.

“Will there be a public option? Please tell us about your health care plan, senator,” someone called out at one point, spurring a rippling reaction among the crowd.

The question has gained increased urgency as lawmakers meeting with health-industry lobbyists have sent signals that tax-based and government-run public health care along the lines of public education could be off the table.

Speaking in his shirt sleeves and without notes, Bennet, the former Denver schools superintendent tapped by Gov. Bill Ritter to serve the remainder of current Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s term in the Senate, won over the audience with quick reference to policy details and what seemed a cautiously optimistic critique of the strengths and weaknesses of various options for reform.

“If a public option is paid for and we changed the incentive structures… it would be a helpful part of an overall package and it would increase choice,” Bennet said.

“But we shouldn’t kid ourselves. If we have a public plan but if we don’t get the incentive structure in line, we run the very serious risk of putting the costs on our children and grandchildren.”

In recent speeches, Bennet has likewise emphasized the need to encourage preventive and follow-up care in order to rein in costs. He has said there are “amazing savings to be generated by paying people to stay well instead of for getting sick.”

During the five months he has been in office, Bennet has embraced health care reform as a major priority. He has introduced two bills on the topic and has voted to expand children’s insurance and rural medical services. He has delivered speeches on the topic on the floor of the Senate and around Colorado in past weeks. He told the Mountview Boulevard audience that reform just makes fiscal sense.

“We face double-digit increases in costs every year… roughly half the national deficit is due to health care costs. Seventeen percent of our GDP goes to health care. Other nations spend half that much.”

The health care ministers

Bennet’s appearance at the church underlines the role religious leaders like Calhoun may come to play in the debate.

In addition to hosting the meeting, which brought out hundreds in a storm the day before the holiday, Calhoun has taped an ad airing this week on Christian radio stations asking listeners to demand Colorado Sens. Mark Udall and Bennet “support reform that makes quality health care choices affordable for all families.”

Calhoun is part of a network of religious leaders organized by groups that include the PICO National Network, Faith in Public Life, Faithful America, Sojourners, and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. Leaders of the group say they are acting on a moral imperative based on the hardships they see members of their congregations enduring daily due to the failings of the present system.

On a conference call earlier in the week, members stressed their goal to act as a counterweight to the powerful interests lobbying lawmakers and to combat the predictable efforts that will be mounted to “scare religious voters” away from reform.

“Health care was a central issue in the ministry of Jesus… the uninsured, the underinsured… immigrant populations the poor, these are the people who need coverage and care. The current system is unfair and unjust,” said Joe Harvard, senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Durham, N.C., and an advisory board member for Duke University’s Translational Medicine Institute.

Joyce Hardy, archdeacon of the Episcopal diocese of Arkansas, agreed that health care reform is “a justice issue.”

In the three years since she opened the free Harmony health care clinic in central Arkansas, she said the need has grown much worse.

“More and more… there is no difference in the people that are coming in to volunteer and the people coming in for care. They are all working people with families to support — some just simply don’t have the benefit of coverage.”

In addition to the radio campaign launched this week, the leaders of the network are organizing public meetings like the one Calhoun hosted last night, featuring elected officials and community leaders. They are distributing a so-called pastor’s guide to the health care debate, which they say will reach more than 800,000 families, and they are committed to placing 10,000 phone calls to members of Congress before the August recess.

Hot-button issues

The ministers told The Colorado Independent that the politically loaded relationship that has developed between religion and medical practice based on attitudes toward abortion and stem-cell research and coverage for gay domestic partners, for example, is something they are keenly aware of as a problem they will have to overcome.

The problem those hot-button issues pose to reform, they said, is not so much that they stoke secular anxiety over religious influence on health care, but that they are used to evoke fear among religious voters.

“This is a unifying campaign. Those issues are used to scare religious voters away from reform. This campaign focuses on the need to make health care available for all families,” said Katie Paris of the advocacy group Faith in Public Life and one of the organizers of the press conference. “We have to be truth tellers. The faith community has to know that health care reform does not mean people will be forced to perform abortions.”

“The fact that 50 million to 80 million Americans [are without care], that moves us beyond those particular issues,” said Rev. Mark Seem of Pella Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska.

The radio ads will run through Independence Day. The ads and the press conference are available for listening on the Web here.

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