Op-Ed

Cutting vision, dental benefits contrary to religious tenets

Tayna Fogle, a leader of the Kentucky Poor People’s Campaign, handed a tooth brush to a staff member in Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s office on July 10. For weeks, the protesters had been barred from entering the Capitol as a group. They were let inside after an attorney general’s opinion said it was illegal to keep them out.
Tayna Fogle, a leader of the Kentucky Poor People’s Campaign, handed a tooth brush to a staff member in Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s office on July 10. For weeks, the protesters had been barred from entering the Capitol as a group. They were let inside after an attorney general’s opinion said it was illegal to keep them out.

Scripture tells us that God is the Great Physician. The Gospels provide story after story of Jesus’ healing ministry on Earth. The apostles continued this ministry, bringing not just spiritual good news, but physical well-being to the poor and oppressed.

These are the examples that we in the Christian faith are called to follow, and other faith traditions have similar requirements to address the good of the whole person. It is this deep-seated value that is offended by the recent decision to end dental and vision coverage for 1 in 10 Kentuckians.

These small but key health benefits could mean the difference for low-income Kentuckians between an inconvenient trip to the dentist or a stroke or heart attack; an hour in the optometrist’s chair or a lifetime of diabetes or blindness. To revoke our neighbor’s ability to receive this care is to reject the inherent dignity we each carry as part of God’s creation.

Belief in the inherent dignity of each person and commitment to policies that reflect this dignity drove the Poor People’s Campaign a National Call for Moral Revival and the Kentucky Council of Churches back to the Capitol over and over this summer.

As we continue pursuing a just commonwealth, our faith compels us now to speak out against cruel health-care cuts. These choices are deeply at odds with our faith, as illustrated by one of the fundamental principles of the Poor People’s Campaign: “We believe that people should not live in or die from poverty in the richest nation ever to exist. Blaming the poor and claiming that the United States does not have an abundance of resources to overcome poverty are false narratives used to perpetuate economic exploitation, exclusion, and deep inequality.”

A recent federal court ruling against proposed barriers to health coverage (known as Kentucky’s 1115 Medicaid waiver) expounded on this point well. It plainly said that the purpose of Medicaid is to provide medical assistance, and that under the law there is no such thing as the undeserving poor, there are only our neighbors who deserves care.

The ruling did not in any way compel the state to revoke dental and vision coverage. That was the state’s choice, and a cruel one. Rather than devising new ways of taking health care away from Kentuckians, our leaders ought to be focused on making care more accessible and affordable.

There are examples all across the country of neighborly care: Alaska is lowering premiums through reinsurance. New Jersey is protecting its citizens by rejecting junk short-term insurance plans. Texas has ensured that nobody gets hit with a surprise, expensive, out-of-network bill. And in New Mexico advocates are moving to allow anyone to buy into Medicaid.

It is possible that stripping these benefits is just a prelude to a far more catastrophic decision by our state’s leaders.

In January, when the governor’s barriers to coverage were given an initial green light, he filed an executive order which amounted to a threat: take away my waiver and I’ll take away our Medicaid expansion.

Now that the court has halted his waiver, half a million Kentuckians — mainly the working poor but also parents and the homeless — could be left without the ability to get care. We would be thrown back to the days when a cough or a strange rash felt like an existential threat. This is not who we are, nor whom God created us to be together.

Every time I pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done on Earth as it is in heaven,” I hope and strive for a world that reflects God’s goodness and wholeness. Every time I put money in the collection plate, I trust that it will meet a need. But prayer and charity only go so far when laws are erected that steal the dignity from our people.

I urge our state’s leaders to make dental and vision care, and indeed all forms of care, a permanent part of Kentucky.

The Rev. Donald K. Gillett II serves as senior pastor at East Second Street Christian Church and as executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches.

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