Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Canadian clergy urge health care for all Americans

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If Barack Obama were on the other end of the telephone line, Rev. Karen Hamilton would tell the president of the United States that she believes providing access to health care for all Americans is about justice and fairness.

As the general secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches, Hamilton expressed that message in writing recently to her counterparts at the National Council of Churches, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the National Association of Evangelicals.

"We've done a lot of thinking and a lot of reflecting on the need for just and equitable health care," Hamilton says of the letter sent on Aug. 10. "It was a pastoral letter to say this is what we've been talking about for years in the Canadian context and if it is of help to you, we're happy to offer it."

She hasn't yet received a response from any of the organizations, but she thinks the letter provoked an invitation to listen in on a recent conference call on health care reform involving Obama and representatives from a variety of American faith groups.

"The channels are obviously open. From my mind, the fact that church leaders were involved in this level of communication is a good thing," Hamilton says of the Aug. 19 conference call. "It brought the faith communities together in a common way for a common purpose and a common articulation of the concern for a fair and equitable health care system."

An estimated 140,000 people listened to conference call and web cast organized by a coalition of faith groups (, which included a 10-minute talk by Obama and short contributions by a dozen religious leaders. The coalition is running a 40-day campaign targeted to religious groups, asking them to lobby Congress for health care reform on the grounds that affordable health care is a "moral priority for millions of people of faith."

Obama's health care reform bill, which has sparked much debate in recent weeks, proposes that Americans buy health care insurance from the government and would subsidize people unable to afford the premiums. Currently, 46 million people in the United States have no health insurance.

Hamilton says the Canadian Council of Churches isn't advocating for a specific position, but is merely providing information about the Canadian experience to American church groups as they deal with health care reform in their own context. During the medicare debate in Canada more than four decades ago, Canadian churches lobbied for a universal health care system, she states in the letter.

"We rejected a structure that would force thousands into bankruptcy due to unforeseen medical expenses, would promote different levels of service in the many disparate regions of this vast land or would end health insurance for those who found themselves unemployed."

Religious groups such as the Grey Nuns or the Salvation Army have a long history of running hospitals and medical facilities in Manitoba, giving them a unique perspective on the importance of providing medical care to anyone who needs it, says Wilmar Chopyk, executive director of the Interfaith Health Care Association of Manitoba, which represents nine faith groups.

"In the Judeo-Christian context, the Good Samaritan is a great example of someone putting themselves at risk by providing services to a brother or a sister in a time where they are vulnerable and sick," says Chopyk, also executive director of the Catholic Health Association of Manitoba, referring to the story in the Bible where a Samaritan man helps a wounded stranger on the side of the road.

The Toronto-based Hamilton says the Canadian Council of Churches and its 22-member denominations are just sharing their beliefs that health care is a moral issue and advocating for improvements to a public health care system is about caring for our neighbours.

"It's sent as an offering and a gift," says Hamilton of the letter.

"If it is helpful to our American sisters and brothers, that's great."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 23, 2009 A9

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