Nov 05 2009

Paying for Prayer in Health Care

As the health care debate rages in Washington, one of the fears is that the behemoth bills that are being passed around might contain hidden provisions that can cause great mischief. While there is a sense of urgency about passing a bill (any bill) there is something to be said for taking the time to pick over the details of such important policy.

Case in point – Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has slipped in a provision to the bill that would require reimbursement for prayer services. Although not mentioned by name, it is thought that the provision is aimed at Christian Science prayer. Christian Scientists, based upon the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy, do not believe in medicine – because they do not believe in illness – because they do not believe in reality. We are purely spiritual beings, they believe, and physical reality is all an illusion, and therefore all illness is as well and is really just a crisis of faith. Therefore prayer and faith is all that is needed. Seeking medical attention is actually a failure of faith and will lead to illness or death (one wonders why any Christian Scientist needs to wear glasses, then). This philosophy worked very well for Eddy, right up until the point where she died.

Christian Scientists have been tireless in promoting their spiritual prayer as legitimate medical interventions for years. They have pressured some private insurance companies to reimburse for their prayers, although this trend has reversed recently with managed care. They have also lobbied for state laws to protect their practitioners from being prosecuted for practicing medicine without a license. Worst of all, they successfully lobbied the Federal government to cover Christian Science prayer for military personnel.  Now they are at work trying to exploit health care reform to further their agenda. The LA Times reports:

The spiritual healing provision was introduced in the House by Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), whose district includes a Christian Science school, Principia College.

The measure is also supported by Senator John Kerry and the late Edward Kennedy – both senators from Massachusetts, home of the headquarters of the church.

This proposed measure raises several concerns. First – prayer is not legitimate medicine, despite the church’s insistence that it is. People are free, of course, to prayer for whomever they wish. But the publicly supported and paid for health care system must be based upon reliable evidence. Otherwise there is no mechanism to ensure a standard of care or to limit costs.

Payments for Christian Science prayer specifically will not add much to overall health care costs directly, but any money wasted at this time should not be tolerated. But of course there is nothing in the provision that limits reimbursement to Christian Science prayer – it simply says that reimbursement cannot discriminate against religious practices. This would open the door for any individual or organization to charge the government for any religious practice that it claims is meant to treat illness. This would be open-season for quackery.

This provision would also further legitimize a practice that is dangerous and potentially fatal. There are numerous cases, for example, of children who were allowed to die horrible deaths at the hands of Christian Science practitioners (and other faith healers).

There is also, of course, the issue of the separation of church and state. Our constitution entreats the federal government (and by extension the states) that they “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Paying for religious prayer would certainly qualify.

The Center for Inquiry is pushing a campaign to write your congressmen and senators to oppose this provision. Unfortunately, Christian Scientists already have a well-organized lobby, and they have written far more letters to Congress than those opposing the provision. Letter writing is important, but it is unlikely we will win this battle with numbers. I urge you to write your representative none-the-less, as well-reasoned opposition will likely carry some weight.

Already the provision is having some problems. Speaker Nancy Pelosi stripped the provision from the House bill over fear that it was unconstitutional. However, Hatch is a powerful Senator and such provisions have a tendency to sneak back into bills as they wander from committee to committee. This means we need to remain vigilant, to keep the issue in the public eye, and make it clear that it is unacceptable for the government to pay for prayer as a substitute for legitimate health care.

In fact, we should use this opportunity to go on the offensive – to ask not only for this provision to stay out of any health care reform bill, but for an alternate provision to be put in place saying that the government will not reimburse for prayer. Maybe we can reverse the military’s reimbursement for prayer services, or the IRS deduction for prayer as a medical expense.

My colleagues and I are trying to keep an eye on this and similar measures as health care reform blazes forward, but it’s not easy, and ultimately we will need the support of the “reality-based community” to protect health care from this kind of dangerous quackery.

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