As the U.S. House of Representatives approached a vote last week on H.R. 3962, legislation that would vastly expand the federal government’s role over the U.S. health-care system, the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) asked Methodists to “contact your member of the U.S. House of Representatives this week and urge them to support H.R. 3962.”
In pushing for passage of the House bill, and for approval of health-care legislation in U.S. Senate, GBCS has made a point of quoting a portion of ¶162V of the United Methodist Book of Discipline: “Health care is a basic human right.”
UM pastor and blogger Donald Sensing has argued (here and here) that the concept of health care as a “human right” is difficult to sustain logically, unless one alters the traditional definition of what is meant by “rights.” Even so, the assertion of a “right” to health care is part of the Social Principles of the United Methodist Discipline.
How did it come to be there?
Language asserting that health care is a right was first added to the Book of Discipline by the 1996 General Conference. That language was reaffirmed (and expanded) by the General Conference in 2008. However, in neither instance (1996 nor 2008) was the matter was actually discussed on the floor of the conference. Details below.
1996: Two years after the Clinton Administration’s health-care plan failed to achieve congressional passage, the General Board of Church and Society submitted a petition asserting a “right to health care” to the 1996 General Conference. (In other words, GBCS authored the assertion it now quotes in support of its lobbying on the health care issue.)
The GBCS petition was approved by the 1996 Church and Society legislative committee and sent to the full General Conference with a recommendation for “concurrence.”
The committee-approved petition did not come to the floor as a separate item, however. Instead, it was bundled with several unrelated items as part of a “consent calendar,” a parliamentary vehicle aimed at speeding the business of a legislative assembly by packaging several “noncontroversial” items as one and having them adopted in a single vote.
The GBCS language describing health care as a right was included as part of Consent Calendar A02 (PDF), which was moved on the floor of the conference and approved with no discussion (or verbal description of the 109 items included) on April 22, 1996.
At that point, or at least when the language was subsequently included in the 1996 Book of Discipline, the United Methodist Church officially endorsed the concept of a right to health care.
2008: Last year, the General Conference reaffirmed the “right” to health care, again without any floor debate. In a manner somewhat similar to 1996, the legislative petition was bundled with other items, although this time the bundled items — three in all — related to the same topic: health care.
In addition to the petition (submitted by GBCS) reasserting a right to health care (and further expanding the language in that section of the Discipline), the bundled items included a petition from GBCS General Secretary Jim Winkler strongly advocating a “single-payer” (i.e. government-managed) system for health care in the U.S.
A third item — a petition from the Norway Annual Conference’s Board of Discipleship/Church and Society — simply declared: “We believe it is a governmental responsibility to provide all citizens with health care.” (Norway has a compulsory, tax-funded health-care system.)
All three of these health-care-related petitions came to the floor of the General Conference after 9 p.m. on the conference’s final night — May 2, 2008. Rushing to conclude legislative business (approximately 50 items were on the legislative calendar for that evening), the conference dealt with all three health-care items as one, following the recommendation of presenter Frederick Brewington, who represented the Church and Society 2 legislative committee.
The General Conference quickly approved the items — with no debate — by a vote of 690-114.
As is common when legislative assemblies are up against a deadline, floor debate was generally in short supply that evening.
|Delegates had apparently taken to heart the advice of Bishop William Hutchinson (Louisiana Conference), who was serving as chair on that final night. Near the beginning of the session, he had reminded delegates of the “significant amount of work” yet to be done and urged them to “keep moving in the voting process.”||
About a half-hour before the health items were presented, with 40 calendar items still remaining and the deadline for adjournment drawing nearer, a delegate from the Oklahoma Conference moved to “suspend the rules and limit debate” so that items could dealt with even more quickly. With delegates keenly aware of the press of time, the motion to limit debate drew only minimal objection and was passed handily.
The presentation of the three health-care items began at approximately 9:10 p.m. and the vote occurred less than four minutes later. The proceedings are transcribed below.
|(The the right-to-health-care legislation is Calendar No. 738; the “single-payer” petition is No. 737; the petition from the Norway Conference is No. 1198.)||
Bishop William Hutchinson: We’re ready to move now to Church and Society 2. Frederick Brewington.
Frederick K. Brewington (New York Conference, chair, Church and Society 2 legislative committee): Thank you, Bishop.
Bishop, the next three petitions we’re going to bring as a group in an attempt to bundle them, if they are so allowed to be bundled by the body.
Bishop Hutchinson: All right.
Brewington: They deal with the issue of quality health care. They are found at the following DCA [Daily Christian Advocate] pages — 2175 — excuse me, 2174 and 2268.They are Calendar Numbers 738, 737, and 1900 — excuse me, 1198 — found in the Advanced DCA 347, 348, and 379. The petition numbers are: Petition Number 80642, 80568, and 81011.
These three petitions, Bishop, deal with strong statements dealing with the need for quality health care and the right of all people to that as a basic human right. It sets out — they all set out, as strong statements rooted in a positive way that discuss the responsibility of government to partner and be involved and making sure that health care is made available to all.
Two deal with paragraph 162T of the Book of Discipline [now ¶162V] — and the other deals with resolutions 108 and 113 of the Book of Resolutions and seek to combine the intent of those resolutions into a single resolution.
If further information is needed, Bishop, I would provide that — but the committee has recommended that each of these petitions be adopted.
Bishop Hutchinson: All right. The request is that these be bundled into one vote and you would be adopting all three at the same time.
Do I see any, uh, heartburn with us doing it that way? I don’t think I do.
Yes, do you have a question? Back here in section C, to microphone 8.
Timothy J. Riss (New York Conference): I heard that we’re adopting all three of these. Is one of them on a consent calendar — I’m sorry — is one of them something that you wanted to reject?
Bishop Hutchinson: That is not the recommendation of the committee.
Brewington: They are “to adopt” as to all three.
Riss: I’m sorry.
Bishop Hutchinson: I think we’re ready to vote on this. If you will vote for the adoption of all three petitions you will do so by pressing “1.” If you will reject all three petitions you will do so by pressing “2.” Vote when the timer appears. [A pause as the delegates vote.] All right, we have adopted all three petitions.
As noted above, the 1996 petition asserting a right to heath care was submitted by the General Board of Church and Society, as were two of the three health-care petitions passed in 2008.
Once such items are approved by the General Conference, GBCS is empowered to promote them as official church policy, even to the point of lobbying for specific congressional legislation that would seem to advance those policy aims.
Although competing solutions to particular societal problems may exist, GBCS often lobbies for a specific approach, hence its strong support of H.R. 3962. (For an example of an alternate approach to dealing with the issues of health-care availability and affordability, see here.)
The text of the Book of Discipline‘s ¶162V (“Right to Health Care”), as approved by the 2008 General Conference late on Friday evening, May 2, is here.
The resolution, “Heath Care for All,” submitted by GBCS General Secretary Jim Winkler and approved as part of that same Friday night vote, is now included in the UM Book of Resolutions. Read it here.
(Thanks to MethodistThinker reader, Mark Smith, O.D.,
for suggesting a post on this topic.)