United Methodism faces health care bill fallout

By Joseph Slife

In the wake of enactment of controversial health care legislation that will significantly broaden the federal government’s power over the U.S. health care system, United Methodist bishops and other church leaders are trying to mollify laity and clergy upset about the UM Church’s role in supporting the bill.

Following the bill’s March passage, bishops, district superintendents, and pastors issued letters and e-mails attempting to clarify the church’s position and explain the work of the General Board of Church and Society, the denominational agency that played a key role in pushing for federal mandates on insurance companies and other businesses, as well as for a larger federal role in the allocation of health care resources.

Moments before the bill passed the House of Representatives, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi singled out the United Methodist Church as a key supporter.
“[M]ore than 350 organizations, representing Americans of every age, every background, every part of the country, who have endorsed this legislation,” she said on the House floor. “Our coalition ranges from the AARP…to the United Methodist Church.”

The Speaker’s comments set off a firestorm of reaction from United Methodists unhappy with the legislation and the sharply partisan process by which it was adopted. (The bill, which according to polls was opposed by a majority of voters, failed to garner a single Republican vote in either the House or Senate; in addition 34 House Democrats voted against the bill, as did three Democratic senators on final passage.)

The morning after Speaker Pelosi’s remarks, pastors, bishops, and other church leaders began receiving calls and e-mails from concerned United Methodists demanding an explanation. Laity and some clergy also posted their concerns on various websites.

“I am so disgusted with our denomination,” one commenter wrote on the blog of the North Carolina Conference. “While I love my local church and the people in my community, I will not financially support a denomination that thinks [it] can speak for me [in] a political forum.”

A prominent United Methodist pastor noted that the speaker’s remarks about UM advocacy for the controversial bill could further harm the denomination’s attempts to reverse decades of membership losses.

“In my opinion, Speaker Pelosi’s comments give [many] Americans another reason not to be Methodist,” wrote Tim Stevens, executive pastor at Indiana’s Granger Community Church, on his Leading Smart blog.

“I do everything I can to help thousands of Methodist pastors and leaders every year…. It saddens me that the United Methodist Church is often known primarily for its political positions that have nothing to do with making disciples of Christ,” he wrote.

A clergy commenter responding to Mr. Stevens post was more circumspect, but echoed Mr. Stevens’ concerns. “I’m a UM pastor who has had to walk a fine line between having my own opinions and expressing them publicly. I fear that if I side with one or the other publicly I may damage possible opportunities to engage someone that doesn’t yet know Jesus,” he wrote. “I will say this though: The handling of this bill was shady at best and to attach the name of a denomination to it does no one any good.”

Not officially endorsed. Strictly speaking, the United Methodist Church did not officially “endorse” the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a point made by bishops and others who responded to concerned church members.

However, the UM General Board of Church of Church and Society (GBCS), an official agency of the denomination, did play a lead role among religious organizations in pushing for increased federal government authority over health care. That emphasis was tantamount to lobbying for legislation likely to be embraced by Congressional liberals and opposed by those who preferred a free-market approach to addressing issues of health care availability and affordability.

In December 2009, GBCS orchestrated a letter-writing and telephone campaign aimed at persuading Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.)—a United Methodist—to vote for the same controversial legislation that eventually passed the House. Days later, on Christmas Eve, the Senate passed the bill. Sen. Nelson—the final senator to make up his mind—voted “yes,” ensuring that the legislation would not die in the Senate.

(After suffering a strong political backlash for his vote, Sen. Nelson voted “no” when a slightly revised health bill came back before the Senate; this time his vote did not affect the outcome.)

On the House side, GBCS’ Faith in Action newsletter noted in early March that “[h]elp is needed in the next few weeks as Congress deliberates over final passage of critical health care protections.”

GBCS urged United Methodists to “contact your members of Congress” and “support health care reform.” In the context of the legislative process, GBCS—without actually endorsing the bill by name—was essentially endorsing the bill that had already passed the Senate and was about to come before the House.

Given the General Board of Church and Society’s clear attempt to sway members of Congress to “support health care reform” in the weeks leading up the March 21 House vote, it seems reasonable that Speaker Pelosi (who is not a United Methodist) would construe GBCS’ advocacy as an actual endorsement of the bill by the United Methodist Church, especially since GBCS is an official agency of the denomination.

Grassroots concern. In response to church member concerns about the role of the UM Church in passage of the legislation, Bishop Gregory Palmer, president of the UM Council of Bishops, issued a letter that characterized the role of GBCS as simply one of “monitoring Congressional action” and “informing [Congressional leaders] of the church’s stance consistent with General Conference action.”

Likewise, Bishop D. Max Whitfield of the Northwest Texas Conference insisted that GBCS simply promoted principles, not specific legislation. “[T]he General Board of Church and Society has worked diligently to promote key principles of health care reform. Principles like access to health care, for all people, have been promoted by the UMC for many years, and it was behind these principles, not any specific legislation, that the GBCS put their endorsement,” Bishop Whitfield wrote in a message posted on the NW Texas Conference website.

“General Conference believed reform was essential, and in 2008, they did pass a Resolution urging reform of the health care system. However, that resolution did not advocate for any particular piece of legislation,” he wrote.
Other bishops issued similar letters, including Bishop Larry Goodpaster (Western North Carolina), Bishop Scott Jones (Kansas East/Kansas West), and Bishop Janice Riggle Huie (Texas).

No floor debate. It is true that the 2008 General Conference, meeting in Fort Worth, Texas, did pass legislation related to health care, as several bishops noted in their statements on the health bill. However, it is also true that there was no floor debate at the 2008 General Conference on any of the heath care-related resolutions. Instead, three such resolutions were hurriedly passed—in a single, omnibus vote—on the final night of the Conference as delegates rushed to complete action on nearly 50 legislative items.

Less than four minutes transpired between the time the health care resolutions were presented and the vote was taken. One of the resolutions consisted of nearly 6,000 words (stricken language and new language), or roughly nine pages of single-spaced type.

That lengthy resolution, “Health Care For All in the United States” (now Resolution #3201 in the 2008 edition of the UM Book of Resolutions), was authored by Jim Winkler, head of the General Board of Church and Society—the same agency that used the resolution as a basis for its involvement in advocating what became the controversial legislation passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama.

Health care as a “right.” Language asserting that health care is a right—i.e., something to which all people are entitled—was first added to The Book of Discipline by the 1996 General Conference. That language was reaffirmed (and expanded) by the General Conference in 2008. However, in neither instance (1996 nor 2008) was the matter was actually discussed on the floor of the conference.

1996: Two years after the Clinton Administration’s health care plan failed to achieve congressional passage, the General Board of Church and Society submitted a petition asserting a “right to health care” to the 1996 General Conference. (In other words, GBCS authored the assertion it now quotes in support of its lobbying on the health care issue.) The petition did not define what was meant by “health care,” nor did it suggest how the cost of such an open-ended entitlement would be borne.

The GBCS petition was approved by the 1996 Church and Society legislative committee and sent to the full General Conference with a recommendation for “concurrence.”

The committee-approved petition did not come to the floor as a separate item, however. Instead, it was bundled with several unrelated items as part of a “consent calendar,” a parliamentary vehicle aimed at speeding the business of a legislative assembly by packaging several “noncontroversial” items as one and having them adopted in a single vote.

The GBCS language describing health care as a right was included as part of Consent Calendar A02, which included 109 disparate items. The Calendar was moved on the floor of the conference and approved with no discussion (or verbal description of the included items) on April 22, 1996.

At that point, or at least when the language was subsequently included in the 1996 Book of Discipline, the United Methodist Church officially endorsed the concept of a right to health care.

2008: Two years ago, the General Conference reaffirmed the “right” to health care, again without any floor debate. In a manner somewhat similar to 1996, the legislative petition was bundled with other items, although this time the bundled items—three in all—related to the same topic: health care.

In addition to the petition (submitted by GBCS) reasserting a right to health care (and further expanding the language in that section of the Discipline), the bundled items included a petition from GBCS General Secretary Jim Winkler strongly advocating a “single-payer” (i.e. government-managed) system for health care in the United States.

A third item—a petition from the Norway Annual Conference’s Board of Discipleship/Church and Society—simply declared: “We believe it is a governmental responsibility to provide all citizens with health care.” (Norway has a compulsory, tax-funded health care system.)

All three of these health care-related petitions came to the floor of the General Conference after 9 p.m. on the conference’s final night—May 2, 2008. Rushing to conclude legislative business (as noted earlier, approximately 50 items were on the legislative calendar for that evening), the conference dealt with all three health care items as one. As is common when legislative assemblies are up against a deadline, floor debate was in short supply that evening.

About a half-hour before the health items were presented, with 40 calendar items still remaining and the deadline for adjournment drawing nearer, a delegate from the Oklahoma Conference moved to “suspend the rules and limit debate” so that items could be dealt with even more quickly. With delegates keenly aware of the press of time, the motion to limit debate drew only minimal objection and was passed handily.

The presentation of the three health care items began at approximately 9:10 p.m. and the vote occurred less than four minutes later. With no debate, the General Conference approved the items—which, when taken together, called for creation of an open-ended entitlement to government-run health care worldwide—by a vote of 690-114.

As noted above, the 1996 petition asserting a right to heath care was submitted by the General Board of Church and Society, as were two of the three health care petitions passed in 2008.

Once such items are approved by the General Conference, GBCS is empowered to promote them as official church policy, even to the point of lobbying for specific congressional legislation that would seem to advance those policy aims.

Although competing solutions to particular societal problems may exist, GBCS often lobbies for a specific approach, hence its strong support of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the legislation that has become known colloquially as “ObamaCare.”

Joseph Slife is a certified lay speaker in the North Georgia Annual Conference and an adjunct instructor in the Department of Communication at Georgia’s Emmanuel College. He blogs at www.MethodistThinker.com.

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