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System, heal thyself

February 21, 2006
From the The Globe and Mail

Before embracing private health care, ask yourself what Jesus would do, says

Immediately after the federal election, Alberta Premier Ralph Klein announced more private health care. Quebec and British Columbia are now opening the door to the same reality. Many people across the country expressed concern about what this might mean for the poor and disadvantaged among us. Are their fears justified?
In ancient Greek society, health care was the concern of two gods: Asclepias, the god of healing, and Hygeia, the goddess of health. Societies that follow the path of Asclepias and exalt the role of medicine tend to have a more individualistic culture and make health care and health-care policy their main health focus. Societies in which the concepts of Hygeia are dominant focus on how the environments in which people live and work determine the health and well-being of individuals and populations. Hygeian societies will tend to focus on inequalities in health care and how policies that affect the economic and social characteristics of society also have an impact on the development, health and well-being of individuals and populations.
For Christians, our sacred scriptures are deeply rooted in the biblical story of Israel and the Jewish people. Throughout the Old Testament, God promises his people that he delivers health of body: "I will put none of the diseases upon you which I put on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord your healer" (Exodus 15:26). In the New Testament, Jesus travels through the country healing the sick. Among the most powerful and practical parables that Jesus taught is that of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30). When the good Samaritan stopped and stooped to serve the stranger who had fallen into the hands of bandits, a neighbour was born. The Church, like the good Samaritan, is committed to health and life. Our compassion for the suffering of our neighbours commits us to meeting their pain and ends in communion when every man and woman who suffers becomes a brother or sister.
The Acts of the Apostles describe the situation of the first Christian community in Jerusalem -- how these people dealt with worldly goods, how they saw to it that everyone ate well and that there were no needy persons among them.
Throughout the industrialized world, there is a clear split between those who believe the way of the future should be based on greater emphasis on the individual and less concern about people and the social environment, and those who want more collective action to sustain the quality of the environment in which we live and work.
With the prospect of privatized health care, committed Christians must ask certain serious questions: How can we allow a situation where some people gain a greater share of the pie while others will get less? Where some patients will be unable to afford care or will have less than desirable service? Societies that know how to use their resources, human and financial, to sustain the quality of their social environments during periods of major socio-economic changes will be the ones that sustain trust and social cohesion.
As I reflected on this question, I discovered an important message in another gospel: the healing of the paralyzed at the pool of Bethesda [John 5:1-9]. During my graduate studies in Jerusalem, I lived just up the street from this location and visited the site many times. What was taking place at the pool in Jesus's time, was a thriving cult to the Greek god Asclepias. Jesus walked into this pagan, highly individualistic environment and offered the paralyzed man a new lease on life. He offered a policy of salvation to the individual person and the whole community.
Canada seems to be caught in a debate about the relative importance of the socio-economic determinants of health (Hygeia) and the role and value of medicine and health care (Asclepias). Capitalism based on individualism, with little concern for the social environment and its effect on the life cycle of individuals, will tend to create substantial inequality in income distribution and contribute to the erosion of a society's trust or social cohesion. Capitalism based on a societal context, however, can benefit everyone.
Private health insurance sets up the promise that there will be a higher quality of care for those who are ready to purchase it. This can only lead to a superior private system and a mediocre public system. Authentic health care is that which springs from a communal vision, one that is concerned with the health and well-being of individuals and populations. Societies embracing this model live by a partnership and communitarian philosophy and higher degree of trust. They embody a Christian, biblical and universal vision.
I hope that those in positions of power in governments will consider these things before creating tiers of health care in our country.