Health care: a moral issue

by Jennika Baines
SUN assoc. editor

It started with a little pain.

Dick Schadt had felt achey for a few days and he thought he’d come down with the flu. But his joints hurt, so maybe it was his back problems acting up again.

His wife, Peggy, urged him to go to the doctor.

After a battery of tests, the doctor sat the couple down and delivered the news: it was post-polio syndrome, a condition affecting survivors of polio that can lead to muscle atrophy and skeletal deformity. Though the doctor told Dick he had six or seven years left to live, he also advised Dick to put his affairs in order.

Dick had just opted for early retirement, moved his family to North Carolina where the fishing was good and bought a little grocery store to run as a kind of hobby.

He was a part of the group health insurance he offered the 22 workers at his grocery store. “When the insurance company found out what he had,” Peggy said, “it was like, ‘Let the games begin.’”

To get social security disability payments, the couple went through two years of denials for reasons like Dick’s pre-existing condition of having once had polio, for not having received claims that Peggy said had been sent in and for too much time having lapsed once those claims had been sent again.

“The insurance companies took great delight in denying claims,” Peggy said. “There is no reason for this man to have languished as long as he did.” Eventually, the couple had to hire a lawyer.

Peggy said they were spending between $1,600 and $2,000 a month on medication. “When you do that, it doesn’t take long to blow through your savings, blow through your 401K. You blow through everything,” she said. Soon, they couldn’t pay their mortgage, their electric bill, their taxes.

“You start thinking of what you have to do to sit another plate of eggs and cheese in front of your kids,” she said.

Three of their six children were in college at the time, and even though they had earned some athletic scholarships, the children needed to take out private loans to cover the tuition fees Dick and Peggy thought they would be able to pay. Peggy said the family didn’t qualify for federal loans because the qualifying terms are based on the previous year’s income.

“We looked like we were rolling in dough,” she said. Now, the children had to take out loans at double-digit interest rates and get full-time jobs to sustain them through full-time study and the athletic training necessary to maintain their scholarships.

Within a year or two, Dick and Peggy had to claim bankruptcy.

“The business, our home, the cars, the boat, we lost everything — everything we could sink into making the next medical payment,” she said. “The marriage, everything. Everything was gone.”

Dick moved into a trailer in North Carolina to be near his doctors and the hospital. Peggy took the three youngest children, including one with multiple disabilities, and moved in with her mother in Lafayette.

“And I’m just one of millions going through the same thing, too embarrassed to say anything,” Peggy said. “You just fall in the hole and shut up.”

During President Barack Obama’s speech before Congress last week, he referred to healthcare reform as a moral issue. This is something religious leaders and social justice workers have been saying for years, and priests and ministers in the Syracuse Diocese are urging people to frame this debate in the basic principles of their faith.

“This is a moral issue. It’s based on justice and basic human rights and it’s based on the teachings,” said Father Tom Hobbes of Binghamton. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — you’re not going to have any of those things if you don’t have some pretty good health care opportunities.”

Father Hobbes said leaders of all religious denominations are stressing the moral imperatives to provide health care coverage for everyone. “Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, whatever: it’s just that basic and just that important. If we’re going to be true to our faith we’ve got to do something about it.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has come out in favor of a universal health policy that maintains human life and dignity from conception to natural death; a policy which provides access for all with special concern for the poor and for legal immigrants; a policy that preserves pluralism and the common good and includes freedom of conscience and a variety of options; and a policy which restrains costs and applies them equitably across the spectrum of people paying.

Abortion and end-of-life options are particularly hot-button topics for many who have opposed health care reform, especially as rumors of “death panels” swirled in recent months. In his speech before Congress, President Obama called these rumors “a lie, plain and simple.”

He also added, “And one more misunderstanding I want to clear up — under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions, and federal conscience laws will remain in place.”

Msgr. Charles Fahey, a priest of the Syracuse Diocese who has devoted many years to health care policy, said that too often these two issues are regarded as the Catholic issues. “The others, to me, are also the Catholic issues,” he said. “These are also important. This distorts the debate for them to be highlighted.”

These issues include moderating spending so that health care is accessible for all, ensuring that those who aren’t insured have coverage and hammering out who makes the decisions for key issues regarding the integrity of life, he said.

“There are public and private decisions to be made,” Msgr. Fahey said. “The question we need to ask is: What are the values that undergird these decisions?”

For example, he said, his recent hip and cataract surgeries were covered by Medicare, while dental work was not. The first two surgeries were not life-saving, he said, but helped to lessen what he calls his “progressive intermittent frailty.” They made him more comfortable. To cover the two surgeries and not the dental work shows how a public decision was made by Medicare about what would be covered under their plan.

Likewise, to have the hip and cataract surgeries, despite the risks inherent to both, was a private decision made by Msgr. Fahey.

Similar informed decisions need to be made regarding integrity and quality of life questions in the health care debate, he said. Msgr. Fahey is particularly interested in end-of-life questions. “Is it right to interfere with the dying process?” he said. For instance, should expensive cancer drugs be given to patients if they will only prolong life for a few months?

“Part of our spirituality as Catholic people is always to contemplate the end of life,” he said. Along with preparing finances and family and spiritual relationships, “I ought to give it some consideration as to how aggressively I want to have my life preserved,” he said.

With health care reform, he said he would like to know whether someone else would decide these issues based on cost, and what aspects would be deemed “futile” and would not be covered.

Unfortunately, he said, these issues are too often brought to the public attention by politicians and other public figures who barrel into these sensitive debates in a loud, uncivilized manner. Msgr. Fahey is trying to encourage people instead to consider the issue of health care reform from a Catholic perspective.

“Continual in this notion of Christianity is a sense of solidarity over time and with all people,” he said. “The tendency now is to think, ‘What I have now is something I deserve and something I have worked hard for.’ Well, that’s silly.”

In a homily given to parishioners of St. Joseph the Worker Church in Syracuse on Aug. 22, Msgr. Fahey urged everyone to regard themselves as “the beneficiaries of generations of discoveries and their application to our human condition.” From sewer systems to baby aspirin, this society is the cumulative effect of generations of scientific, political and economic advances.

“We benefit from social structures that enable us to live freely with certain rights, but also with responsibilities to one another and to the common good,” Msgr. Fahey said in his homily. “It may seem strange, but insurance, whether public or private, is an important structure in this quest for solidarity and reciprocity.”

This is the same perspective Amy Fleming, a social justice minister with the Justice and Peace Advisory Council, would like everyone to adopt. “I’d like to remind them of ‘Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me,’” she said.

 

She said she is frustrated by the amount of misinformation floating around. “Most people think, ‘I’m only one person, what can I do?’ There’s a tremendous amount you can do. And the first thing you can do is educate yourself.”

Armed with the correct information, people can disspell the myths and misinformation that can spread so quickly, Fleming said.

“It’s like I used to tell my children, ‘Speak your truths quietly and clearly,’” she said.

For Peggy Schadt, however, it’s difficult not to let the anger and fear overwhelm her.

She took a job making doughnuts on the graveyard shift at a local grocery store and was able to get Dick on her insurance to help him manage some of his costs. For six years she worked nights, slept three hours, and then cared for her children and her mother, who was diagnosed with colon cancer.

Dick died in 2005 and was buried on his 59th birthday. Her mother died in 2007.

Since then, Peggy has had her own battles for basic health care coverage. When she had to quit her job to care full-time for her family, she purchased an insurance package with a premium that eventually reached 1/3 of her overall income.

Her son was accepted onto the Child Health Plus plan, and she was able to be included on his coverage.

“I got everything checked, from the top of my head to the tip of my toes,” she said. When a colonoscopy revealed 27 polyps, her doctor urged her to remain vigilant.

But she said she knew her son’s birthday in February will mean that he, and she, will lose the insurance coverage that pays for such preventative testing.

In three years, she’ll turn 65, old enough for medicare. Until then, she said, she’ll have to wait.

“There’s nothing out there that I can do,” she said, “except sit here for the next three years with a ticking time bomb.”

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