Hospital crisis needs a healthy dose of faith

My home state of Georgia is in the throes of a health care crisis.

Providers are cutting hours, hospitals are closing their doors, and Georgians -- black, white, brown, purple, rich and poor -- are suffering. Five hospitals have been shuttered in the past three years, and many more have reduced the services they provide.

As a minister and a concerned community member, I cannot stand by and idly watch this situation worsen. The Bible teaches that we have a moral responsibility to care for the most vulnerable among us. Proverbs 21:13 states, “He who shuts his ear to the cry of the poor will also cry himself and not be answered.” Their suffering is our suffering. But as we seek to face the reality of our daily challenges to keep health care accessible in Georgia, we must keep Washington from making the situation worse.

Hospitals, clinics and other treatment centers have to navigate myriad regulations handed down from federal and state statutes. More have been piled on since the passage of health care reform.

Today, a successful program that was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1992 to benefit critical access hospitals in poor rural and urban areas has become a congressional target -- the 340B program. The 340B program requires that pharmaceutical companies sell their outpatient drugs to safety-net hospitals at discounted prices. In return, they are able to participate in the federal Medicaid program and have access to many millions of guaranteed customers.

Scripture is clear on our moral obligation to help those in need, but history has taught us that depending on Washington for solutions is often a fool’s errand. Finally, in the 340B program, we’ve found something that works -- a revenue-neutral program that benefits safety-net hospitals serving low-income areas, often with large aging, minority, or infant populations, without costing taxpayers money.

It’s important that Congress leave this program alone, especially given the numerous other health care issues that demand immediate attention.

Georgia isn’t unique in its mounting hospital closures. Nationwide, 43 rural hospitals have closed since 2010. Inner-city hospitals have faced similar pressures, and experienced similar results. These hospitals and clinics are often major employers in their communities, as well as the last line of defense for life-saving treatments. As they scramble to keep their doors open, many have come to increasingly rely on the 340B program. Congressional cuts to the number of providers eligible to benefit from the program would be a mistake.

The mayor of Belhaven, N.C., walked the nearly 300 miles to Washington, D.C., last week to raise awareness for the plight of rural hospitals after his local hospital closed in 2014. With him was the Rev. William Barber, head of the North Carolina NAACP, an outspoken advocate for health care for low-income and minority populations.

While Rev. Barber and I differ in some of our views, we’re united by our faith and by a common background. Of course we likely agree that health affirming and health improving programs are needed. The health and livelihood of the unborn, mothers and women in general must be of the highest value in our society.

We also share a set of challenges that demand real world solutions while reducing the taxpayer burden, as the cost for government programs becomes too great for working Americans to bear.

My uncle, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said in 1964 that poverty “is one of the most urgent items on the agenda of modern life.” It’s as true today, unfortunately, as it was then. We must recognize effectiveness when we see it, cost-savings when we can, and moral responsibility at all times.

Anything less is both fiscally irresponsible and morally reprehensible.