In the afterglow of a huge political victory that was covered, and for which both sides rooted, like a sporting event, the law’s proponents began talking about people – the millions of people who will have access to health insurance as the result of the law, told in the representative stories of a few.
One writer, a former superintendent of insurance in Maine, told stories about women and families she encountered in her job who would be helped under the law:
Melissa is an uninsured young woman who called an ambulance because her baby was sick. Because Melissa didn’t have insurance she was not allowed to ride to the hospital in the ambulance with her baby. Her baby died on the way to the hospital in that ambulance—without her mother, because she did not have insurance.
Jane is insured but doesn’t have access to medical care because she and her husband, a lobsterman, have a high deductible policy. Since he has a medical condition that makes him pass out, Jane is forced to join him in his lobster boat to make sure he doesn’t drown. Since their insurance doesn’t pay benefits until the $15,000 deductible is met, they can’t afford for him to see a doctor. …
[They] are now free to count on Obamacare.
Ezra Klein, whose reporting on this subject over the past four years has turned me into a passionate advocate more than any other single factor, summarized it best:
This will be covered, in many quarters, as a political story. It means President Obama — and Solicitor General Don Verrilli — are popping the champagne. It means that Mitt Romney and the Republicans who were fighting the health-care law have suffered a setback. It will be covered in other quarters as a legal story: It is likely to be central to Roberts’ legacy, and perhaps even to how we understand the divisions in the Court going forward.
And, to be sure, it’s all those things. But those stories don’t capture the effect this decision will have on ordinary Americans … like Eric Richter. …
Richter, a 39-year-old resident of Ohio, works at a stone drilling company. He and his wife made $36,000 a year. That’s too much to qualify for Medicaid, but too little to easily afford insurance. So Richter didn’t purchase insurance. …
Then Richter discovered a tumor growing up his leg. He first tried home remedies, cutting out sugar and eating beets, having read somewhere that it might help. But it kept growing. His wife sewed him new pants to accommodate the “melon-sized” lump. He stood in church, because it was too painful to sit down. He was turned away from a needed scan because he lacked insurance. In April, doctors in the emergency room told Richter his tumor was malignant. His wife desperately tried to find an insurer would would cover them. No one would. The tumor was, of course, a preexisting condition.
Perhaps nothing in Richter’s story speaks to the cruel reality of the American health-care system better than this: Richter’s wife, Dani, was recently let go from her job at an electronic records firm. For most families, this would be a tragedy. For the Richters, it might be a lifesaver. The loss of income pushed them well beneath the poverty line, and that might mean they qualify for Medicaid.
Even President Obama, who saw his signature legislative accomplishment upheld, his presidential legacy ensured and his path to re-election cleared, even if by just a little bit, shifted the focus to someone else.
He told his fellow Americans about a letter hanging in his office, from an Ohio woman named Natoma Canfield.
Canfield, a breast cancer survivor and self-employed housekeeper, had written the letter in late 2009, as the fate of what would become Obamacare remained very much in doubt. She had gone into debt paying her medical bills, eventually dropping insurance because it had become too expensive for her to afford. She ended up getting charity care at the Cleveland Clinic, after Obama first mentioned her story publicly in 2010. But, Obama said, “I carried Natoma’s story with me every day of the fight to pass this law. It reminded me of all the Americans, all across the country, who have had to worry not only about getting sick, but about the cost of getting well.”
This is the difference between the supporters and opponents of Obamacare: The supporters invariably turn it back to helping people, our moral obligation as the richest group of people in the history of the human race to make sure the least fortunate of us can afford to get sick. The opponents have never really hidden their starkly political motives – to deny Obama the legislative accomplishment that would help him win a second term – indeed, it would be difficult to do so, given how many of them once supported the very elements and goals that underlie the Affordable Care Act.
To be sure, Obama and his supporters have many motives for pushing through health-care reform, some of them undoubtedly political. But Obama did not have to campaign on extending health insurance to everyone, and he did not have to work so hard to fulfill that promise, at great political risk to himself and his party. But he did. And I firmly believe that he did so because of his Christian faith.
No single piece of legislation in 40 years has done more to lift the needy from helplessness and hopelessness. Parents will be able to get insurance for their children. Cancer survivors will be able to afford to have a relapse. The working poor may still be poor, but they will not be driven to bankruptcy by medical bills – or, worse, be killed by disease for which they could have been treated had they been able to afford the doctor’s visits and medication.
Yet when most Christians I hear discuss the Affordable Care Act, they are more likely to denounce it. They argue churches should help the poor, not the government, and they warn darkly of a government big enough to give you everything you want, which of course means it is big enough to take everything you have.
They may not realize it, but they are providing still another example of the ways in which political demagoguery is driving expressions of faith – rather than faith driving the priorities and promises of politicians. The Republican Party’s intransigence on helping the poor is legitimated by legions of people who claim to follow a Jesus that commanded us above all else to help the poor.
Churches have proven they cannot or will not help everyone who needs it, and the government has a reach the church does not. As members of the government, we as American Christians can choose to use the unique power we have as inherent participants in the political process to help others or refuse them. (And simply sitting out does not absolve us of responsibility, for that too is a political action with consequences for governance in our system.)
For too long, Christians have used their power to refuse the needy.
In Amos’ day, God’s people worshipped a god they called Yahweh, but it was really an idol. They cared nothing for the things about which Yahweh cared. Instead, they “trample[d] the heads of the poor into the dust” and they sold the indebted into slavery because they couldn’t pay back the price of a pair of sandals. When confronted with Amos’ condemnation of these practices, the country’s chief religious official, Amaziah the high priest, responded in political terms and didn’t even recognize the voice of God before him. Political power corrupted and deformed the response of God’s followers to the poor and oppressed.
Is it so much different today? Do Christians have any excuse to so thoroughly reject the notion of public support for the poor? Can we truly say we worship Jesus while we endorse men and women who promise to give more money to the rich and less for programs designed to help the needy?
When I read stories about the people who will be helped under the Affordable Care Act, I can’t help but think of Jesus’ discourse on the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25: “I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.”
Melissa and Jane, Eric Richter and Natoma Canfield. These are all Jesus.
Barack Obama and other supporters of the Affordable Care Act didn’t feed them personally or hand them a check. But in pushing through that legislation, they made sure these strangers can get care when they are sick and afford both food and medicine at the same time. By doing so, they used the power they were given to lift up rather than trample the powerless, to help rather than scorn the oppressed. Does our Savior ask any less from us?
Which is why, when Barack Obama meets Jesus face to face, I have little doubt he will hear those incredible words: “Well done, good and faithful servant!”