Defining health care starts by defining community

Posted Jan. 13, 2010, at 7:28 p.m.

Health care may be viewed as a daunting economic issue — since health-care spending represents a sixth of the economy — or a complicated political one — because the federal government spends more on health care than anything else, but it is also a simple, straightforward moral issue.

As the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives negotiate a unified version of the health care reform each chamber passed, I urge the people of Down East Maine to keep this moral clarity in mind as they make their voices heard in this important process.

Responsibility for obtaining and maintaining good health must be shared among individuals, families and communities. That’s why shortly before Christmas I asked parishioners to participate in a community health assessment sponsored by the organization Healthy Acadia of Hancock and Washington Counties. I introduced the exercise by noting that one of our core beliefs as Episcopalians is that God has, from the very beginning, worked with us and called us to work together to prepare a highway in the wilderness for all people — to make crooked paths straight so all people are members of a community that is just, fair and healthy.

Articulating characteristics of a healthy town is essential to moving toward such a community. National health care reform is being shaped by our elected officials based on their experience and knowledge about what is important to us. Though every elected representative is also influenced by special interest groups, Maine is fortunate to have public servants represent us. We shape their vote by informing them for what we are willing to sacrifice. Our public policy can reflect our deepest values and dreams rather than a perceived safety in the status quo.

I was deeply moved that morning by peoples’ clarity and passion. Congregations often hesitate to speak their mind. Not on this topic. Fifty-four church members from the Mount Desert Island area participated, supplying a wide variety of definitions of a healthy community, ranging from clean air and water to laughter; opinions of what promoted such community health in our area, including Acadia National Park; respect for individuality, diversity and farmers markets and suggestions of what changes would promote it better — from walking paths to more affordable and accessible health care. I finally had to say, “Enough.”

As I reflected on this tangible energy, a second sense emerged. There were no surprises here. We all instinctively knew, in a broad sense, what a healthy community is and what we need to do to more perfectly realize it in all its dimensions, including assuring that everyone has access to quality medical care they can afford.

It is time to pass national health-care reform. We have a consensus on what we want. We want everyone to receive health care. We have for years. The urgency isn’t in the fine print. It’s not filling in the potholes that reappear each spring. We want to build a new road that works for everyone. On a practical, political level, that means Congress enacting legislation that we know will make more health insurance available and affordable to more people, bringing them into the community of health care and beginning to tend to their physical, mental and emotional needs.

Just like the individuals in church that morning, we must communicate our desires to our congressional representatives as they prepare to vote shortly on the most important health care legislation in over 40 years. We need to share our frustration with the current system and our desire for improvement. We need to ask folks in our households and neighborhoods to stand for a healthier community. This is the only way that our system changes.

Jonathan Appleyard is rector of St. Saviour’s Episcopal Church in Bar Harbor.

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