Money for Prayer in the Health Care Bill?

Money for Prayer in the Health Care Bill? November 9, 2009

by VorJack

The LA Times recently had an article about a small provision in the Senate version of the Heath Care bill:

Healthcare provision seeks to embrace prayer treatments

Backed by some of the most powerful members of the Senate, a little-noticed provision in the healthcare overhaul bill would require insurers to consider covering Christian Science prayer treatments as medical expenses.

The provision, which was added by Sen. Orrin Hatch and backed by John Kerry and the late Ted Kennedy, prevents discrimination against “religious and spiritual health care” by health insurers providing care through the proposed Gateway system. There was a similar provision in the House version of the bill, but that has since been removed in the newest version, HR3962. This Senate version still remains.

Health Care Deform

Pullquote: This would be an absolute invitation to organize
Annie Laurie Gaylor

The bill in question is S.1679, the “Affordable Health Choices Act.” The provision in question reads as follows:

‘‘The essential benefits provided for in subparagraph (A) shall include a requirement that there be non-discrimination in health care in a manner that, with respect to an individual who is eligible for medical or surgical care under a qualified health plan offered through a Gateway, prohibits the Administrator of the Gateway, or a qualified health plan offered through the Gateway, from denying such individual benefits for religious or spiritual health care, except that such religious or spiritual health care shall be an expense eligible for deduction as a medical care expense as determined by Internal Revenue Service Rulings interpreting section 213(d) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 as of January 1, 2009.” (Sec 3103(d))

If I’m reading this right (and there’s no guarantee that I am), this would affect all insurers who take part in the Affordable Health Benefit Gateway programs that the bill seeks to create in the individual states. These programs would be administered by the states and paid for by federal grants, and would assist those people without health care, either by steering them to programs they can afford or by providing subsidized health insurance. This particular provision would prevent any of those insurers from discriminating against “spiritual health care” provided that it fit the definition of deductible medical care.

As the bill says, the IRS tax code provides a definition of medical care in Title 26, Section 213(d). The tax code itself doesn’t specifically mention anything about prayer cures, but according to IRS Publication 502 (PDF), “You can include in medical expenses fees you pay to Christian Science practitioners for medical care.” (p. 7) Also chiropractors, but that’s another argument.

So that explains the emphasis in the LA Times article about Christian Science. The IRS already considered their services as medical expense for the purposes of tax deduction, so this provision would require certain health insurers to pay for it.

Critical Condition, or only Serious?

Pullquote: I offered this amendment because I believe that everyone, regardless of religious affiliation, should have access to healthcare.
Sen. Orrin Hatch

Naturally, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is all over this. Again from the LA Times article:

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a group of atheists and agnostics that promotes separation of church and state, said the opportunity to receive payment for spiritual care could encourage other groups to seek similar status.

Gaylor’s point there is questionable. Certainly, many religious groups might try to get themselves injected into the tax code as providers of spiritual medical care, but there’s no reason to think that any will succeed. Further, as a spokeswoman for John Kerry pointed out, companies are prevented from discriminating, but that just means they are required to apply the same standards across the board. The insurers may declare that they will only provide reimbursement for procedures that meet their standards for efficacy. And that would leave the Christian Scientists out in the cold.

Still, it seems obvious that this provision will lead to many lawsuits and heated arguments, and add to the risk that the Government will be entangled with religion. So what’s the point? According to Orrin Hatch, “I offered this amendment because I believe that everyone, regardless of religious affiliation, should have access to health care.” But I don’t see how the provision as currently worded does that. One could easily add a provision that wouldn’t fund an insurer that discriminated on the basis of religion, so why the language of “religious and spiritual health care”?

Right now there are still more questions than answers, and more heat than light. While I think that the FFRF is banging the drum a bit too hard, I basically agree that the bill would be better off without the complications that this provision brings.

I suggest calling or e-mailing your Senators and requesting that this provision be struck from the bill. Tell them that if the provision remains, then during the next election you and all your friends will pray for their reelection — rather than donating, assisting their campaign or, you know, voting.

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