Canadian Council of Churches comments on U.S. health care debate

By Dennis Gruending

Rev. Dr. Karen HamiltonThe Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) has written to three large American religious groups offering positive comments on the value of a publicly financed and administered health care system. Rev. Dr. Karen Hamilton, the CCC’s general secretary, sent a letter on August 10 to the National Council of Churches, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the National Association of Evangelicals. (The CCC has not yet posted the letter on its website at the time of this writing). I had reported on Pulpit and Politics on July 27 that some prominent American religious groups, including the powerful Southern Baptist Convention, were altogether opposed to significant health care reform, while others including the Catholic bishops and the American Evangelical Association were not prepared to support any plan that might include paying for abortion as a medical procedure. Rev. Hamilton’s low-key intervention comes at a time when American special interest groups are orchestrating a campaign of fear and misinformation about health care reform. Some angry Americans are showing up at town hall meetings on health care carrying handguns, rifles, and even automatic weapons – claiming that it is their constitutional right to do so in the United States of America. This is a chilling development that really does cross the line, and it is more in keeping with Germany in the 1930s or with experiences in recently-failed states than it is with a healthy, functioning democracy.

Rev. Hamilton’s letter

“Canadians are aware that certain lobby groups and media outlets in the United States regularly use critical references to Canada’s health care system and interviews with Canadian citizens to support their arguments,” Rev. Hamilton writes. “By means of this letter and its enclosures, we simply wish to inform you of our Christian reflection on health care in Canada, the implications of this reflection in our ministries, and the action we have taken to discern an appropriate role for Canadian Christians in terms of health care and health care advocacy.”

Hamilton tells her American coreligionists that prior to 1966 Canada had a health care system that failed to provide over 30% of the population with medical insurance. That situation, she says, “created enormous human suffering and ethical problems for those who believed with Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:26, ‘If one member suffers, all suffer together with it…’” She adds, “With varying degrees of fervour, Canadian churches publicly began to advocate for the establishment of Medicare. Canadian churches wanted health care for all.” Hamilton then provides a brief description of this country’s Medical Care Act and describes it as “one of Canada’s hallmark policies towards social inclusion and the alleviation of suffering related to poverty.”  The CCC in recent years, she says, has continued to urge that Canada’s public health system be strengthened.

Expensive health care

The Democrats are not proposing a publicly-administered, single-payer health care system such as we have in Canada, but rather a patchwork of private and public insurance that would assure coverage to everyone, including those 47 million Americans who lack it entirely. President Obama believes that having government as one of the insurers would bring some discipline to a system whose costs are out of control. They are bloated by competing health care insurance companies that are expected to turn a handsome profit for shareholders, and by the provision, for those who can afford it, of rampantly costly high technology medicine. Arnold Reilman, professor emeritus of medicine at Harvard University, writes, “The entire system behaves like a profit driven industry.” He adds, “In most advanced countries with universal coverage, the government determines how medical expenses are reimbursed, and the income of health care providers from technical services is therefore more modest.”

The U.S. spends more on health care than other industrialized country — 17 per cent of the gross domestic product in 2008. By comparison, health care spending accounted for 9.7 per cent of GDP in Canada in the same year. Obama says that the U.S. cannot afford to keep spending so much, even as millions of people are excluded from the service. He has proposed to increase taxes modestly on high-income earners to pay for the extended coverage, and he claims that new efficiencies can be found to reduce the rising cost of care in the future. Any mention of higher taxes is anathema to the rich in the U.S., as is any hint of state involvement, no matter how minor. Obama has now begun to back away from having the government involved at all and is talking about having health cooperatives in some cases, but a continuation of private plans in most others.

Rumours and lies

Nonetheless, the Democrats have been attacked relentlessly in an air war (on television), a ground war (at town hall and other meetings), and a digital war that is spreading like a viral flu on the web. They are fighting back as best they can. I received a message recently referring me to a site called Setting the Record Straight. “It seems like a new lies about health insurance reform crop up each day,” the site says. “These lies create fear and anger – and we’re seeing the results around the country. It’s time to work together to set the record straight and expose the special interests and partisan attack groups who deliberately spread these rumours and lies in a desperate attempt to preserve the status quo.”

What are some of those rumours and lies? Perhaps the most disgusting among them came from Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and Republican vice-presidential candidate in the 2008 election. She posted a note on her official Facebook page claiming that the Democratic plan would ration care and that “my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care.” Needless to say, no such panel exists or has been proposed in any version of the health care bills in Congress.

Canadian comparisons

There is some similarity between what is occurring in the U.S. today and what happened when Saskatchewan’s social democratic government introduced medicare in July 1962. That decision triggered an ugly 23-day doctors’ strike. In a biography that I published in 1990 about former Saskatchewan Premier Allan Blakeney, I describe how someone painted the word “commie” on the wall of then-Premier Woodrow Lloyd’s home. That prompted police to provide him with around-the-clock protection. The Canadian (and the American) Medical Association and the private medical insurance companies were instrumental in financing opposition to medicare and were joined in their project by the Liberal opposition party of the day – much as the Republicans are now part of the corporate campaign against health care reform. There was also a religious dimension to the dispute in 1962, as there is in the U.S. today. Some Canadian Protestant churches had been among those advocating on behalf of medicare for years, but Catholics were mostly opposed. I was in grade eight at the time and recall the religious sisters who taught in our school telling us that medicare was communist-inspired and the beginning of a slippery slope that would rob us of our democratic and religious freedoms. And yes, we were told that under medicare the government would choose our doctors, our treatment, who would live and who would die.

Father Athol Murray, a well known priest who founded Notre Dame College at Wilcox, Saskatchewan, was one of the featured speakers in a series of Keep Our Doctors rallies held throughout the province and broadcast by an obliging radio network. At one rally, Father Murray was quoted as saying: “This thing may break out in violence and bloodshed any day now, and God help us if it doesn’t.” Murray’s bishop was not amused and sent him out of province on an unscheduled holiday. But there were other, countervailing religious voices as well. The Prairie Messenger, a Saskatchewan newspaper published by Benedictine monks, assessed the issues and became one of only two newspapers in all of Saskatchewan to support medicare.

Good Samaritans

In her letter of August 10, Rev. Karen Hamilton is deferential to her American counterparts. “We have no wish to advocate specific positions on the various public policy options being proposed by politicians in your country,” she writes. But, gently, she does make it clear that the principles embedded in public health care are good theology. Quoting from a former CCC general secretary, Hamilton writes, “Medicare can be the Good Samaritan parable writ large.”

The churches had a choice to make in Saskatchewan in 1962 and they have one today in the much grander theatre of American politics. The religious voices of reason and compassion now appear almost entirely absent from the American debate.

3 thoughts on “Canadian Council of Churches comments on U.S. health care debate

  1. Thanks for giving the CCC letter, as you correctly report, a “gentle” attempt to share Canadian church wisdom, some necessary play, Dennis. Nice to see your blog commentary go further, outlining that indeed it was a struggle to get Medicare here in Canada, as it remains a struggle to keep it strong.

    Too bad the Canadian churches, which did such good work under the auspices of their Ecumenical Health Care Network, have let this effort whither and die.


  2. I imagine many people who lived in Sask. in 1962 must now be embarrassed at the positions they took in opposition to medicare. Curiously, the CCF had established “hospitalization” back in (I think) 1949, and did so without much opposition. My Dad, a staunch Liberal and Catholic, applauded it as a wonderful measure. In fact, he didn’t understand how TC Douglas (whom he’d been persuaded was socialist/communist demon) could have initiated so good a measure!


  3. Let’s hope that reasoned, compassionate pursuit of the “common good” will overcome the opposition by vested interest groups to the Obama administration’s efforts to bring about badly-needed health care reform in the United States of America.

    Meanwhile, we Canadians must continue to focus on protecting our own treasured Medicare system from the eroding forces of for-profit health care, and two-tiered health care, whereby those with financial advantage are able to gain quicker access to urgently-needed medical treatment, leaving behind their less-fortunate brothers and sisters.

    Medicare and its universality enshrines the biblical vision of social inclusion.


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