A few years ago, the people behind what would become the Meriden-based Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut were casting about for ways to change the state's broken health-care system.
By the foundation's count, some 325,000 people lack insurance in a state that was once home to the Insurance Capital of the world.
That needs to change, but how?
Foundation President Juan A. Figueroa and others decided that if the state's faith communities weren't on board, any initiative — no matter how serious — would fail. When they started work in earnest in '04 to, as Figueroa says, "change the DNA of the state," organizers started with area clergy.
Who knows better than a preacher, priest, rabbi or imam the pain inflicted by our health care system? Clergy members hold the hands of the sick and the dying, counsel families on debt and divorce. More than half the country's bankruptcies stem from medical debt, says the foundation. Who better knows the agony of watching people choose between paying for their rent or their prescriptions?
Other states — most notably California — have also harnessed faith communities in the struggle for affordable health care for all. The University of Southern California is especially committed to directing the conversation. It's a good fit, provided everyone's adhering to their sacred text.
In '06, Efrain Agosto, now dean of Hartford Seminary, wrote an essay giving the Christian perspective of the initiative. Jesus, after all, broke the rules and healed on the Sabbath. He reached out to the disenfranchised — the tax collector, the lepers, the outcast women. His recorded miracles often involved healing. Agosto called for "health-care systems that respond justly."
In '07, the Connecticut organization brought 100 clergy to the state capitol for a public event. The movement has coalesced into the Interfaith Fellowship for Universal Health Care, a core group of clergy from a wide array of religious communities.
Early on, coalition members agreed to set aside their differences — same-sex marriage, abortion, any hot-button cultural issues took a back seat to health care, says Figueroa. The foundation's most recent proposal broadens state health care and is meant to cover 98 percent of the state's residents within five years. That's medical, dental, mental health and home services.
The group hosted a rally for roughly 1,000 vocal supporters earlier this month at Hartford's Union Station, with Rabbi Stephen Fuchs of Congregation Beth Israel serving as moderator. The event had the feel of a revival. A few days later, Fuchs spoke at Bloomfield's Bethel AME Church. He talked about Gaza and violence in the media — but mostly, he focused on quality health care for everyone. There, too, the message was well-received.
The clergy members are putting the word out to their congregations, and they've written one-page reflection papers that include personal testimony and a plea for better health care. Those are being edited by Agosto and will be published soon. The group intends to meet with the governor and with leaders of the insurance industry.
Working collaboratively is the goal, says Fuchs. His essay includes quotations from Deuteronomy, including one from Deut. 15:4, which says, in part: "There shall be no needy among you."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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