Cover the uninsured week

For the fourth year in a row, a coalition of religious and labor groups are sponsoring the “Cover the uninsured week” to bring the nation’s attention to the dramatic fact that nearly 46 million Americans lack any kind of health insurance. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and The Catholic Health Association of the United States are co-sponsoring events throughout the nation this week.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a philanthropic group devoted to improving health and health care, has put together a report on this issue available at their Web site (covertheuninsured.org).

As one might expect, the report states that the majority of the uninsured are under age 65, given that most seniors are covered by Medicare. Children, although more likely to have insurance than non-elderly adults, represent nearly 20 percent of uninsured Americans. That is particularly worrisome because they are less likely to receive proper medical attention in that critical stage in life.

According to the study, family income is directly related to health insurance coverage — only 9 percent of people in families with income over $50,000 per year are uninsured, compared to 40.8 percent of people with family income below $5,000.

In addition, the rate of uninsurance is disproportionately high among minority groups. Non-Hispanic Whites constitute two-thirds of the non-elderly population yet they account for slightly under one-half of the uninsured non-elderly population. Overall, 13.2 percent of non-Hispanic Whites were uninsured in 2004. In contrast, 21.2 percent of non-Hispanic Blacks were uninsured, and 34.3 percent of Hispanics were uninsured.

The conclusion is obvious: The uninsured tend to be among the poorer, less educated and most disenfranchised in our society.

Massachusetts is courageously tackling this issue. A few weeks ago the Legislature passed a bill that seeks to provide health insurance for every Massachusetts resident beginning in July 2007. If all goes as planned, most of the 748,000 currently uninsured residents of the state — around 12 percent of the population — will receive coverage.

Some may be wondering whether this is the right path to pursue or not. Our society is pervaded with an individualistic mentality that emphasizes personal accomplishment as the source of all rights. Under that concept, the poor among us should not benefit from the wealth generated by the successful, for instance by having the state pay for the extra cost of their health insurance.

That simplistic mentality defies the basic Christian belief that individuals receive everything from the goodness and mercy of God. As stewards of those gifts, each person has the moral obligation to help those in need — those who, almost without exception, have not chosen to be needy but instead are afflicted by circumstances beyond their control.

Whether they imitate the model used in Massachusetts or not, we hope that other states work to ensure their citizens receive appropriate medical care when needed. Proper health care is not a privilege of the rich but a right of all humanity.

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